Hear Robert Frost Read His Most Famous Poems: “The Road Not Taken,” “Mending Wall,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay” & More

Robert Frost has the dubi­ous hon­or of being known the world over as the poet of a seize-the-day cliché. His poem “The Road Not Tak­en” (read by Frost above) appears on cof­fee mugs, autum­nal moti­va­tion­al posters, upbeat email sig­na­tures, and in adver­tise­ments and tele­vi­sion shows, all meant to inspire con­fi­dent deci­sion-mak­ing in uncer­tain times: unin­ten­tion­al­ly iron­ic, pop­ulist appeals to diverge from the herd.

If this is Frost’s lega­cy in the wider cul­ture, it’s a fate most poets wouldn’t wish on their bit­ter­est rival. The typ­i­cal inter­pre­ta­tion of this poem is an unfor­tu­nate mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion of Frost’s work in gen­er­al. Indeed, “The Road Not Tak­en” may be “the most mis­read poem in Amer­i­ca,” as David Orr argues at The Paris Review.

Frost’s poet­ry does not often inspire con­fi­dence or moti­va­tion, but rather doubt, uncom­fort­able reflec­tion, fear, and some­times a kind of dread­ful awe. Like Faulkn­er was in his day, Frost was, and still is, mis­tak­en for a quaint, col­or­ful region­al­ist. But rather than a poet of New Eng­land folk sim­plic­i­ty, he is a poet of New Eng­land skep­ti­cism and a kind of hard-head­ed sub­lime. Any­one who reads “The Road Not Tak­en” close­ly, for exam­ple, will note the speaker’s ambigu­ous tone in the final stan­za, and final three lines—oft-quoted as a tri­umphant dénoue­ment.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Some­where ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less trav­eled by,
And that has made all the dif­fer­ence.

The trav­el­er does not tell us what “dif­fer­ence” the choice will have made, nor why he should tell of this cross­roads “ages and ages hence… with a sigh.” Implied in these lines, how­ev­er, is at least the sug­ges­tion of unavoid­able future regret, and a reck­on­ing with irrev­o­ca­ble fate. The ear­li­er line, “Oh, I kept the first for anoth­er day!” sounds more like an excla­ma­tion of rue than the cel­e­bra­tion of a choice well-made.

And as Orr points out, the speak­er’s ini­tial encounter presents him with two paths that “equal­ly lay / in leaves.”; the two roads are equal­ly travelled—or untrav­elled as the case may be—and the trav­eller choos­es one arbi­trar­i­ly. In these final lines, he announces his inten­tion to tell a dif­fer­ent, per­haps self-con­grat­u­la­to­ry sto­ry about his deci­sion. “The poem isn’t a salute to can-do indi­vid­u­al­ism,” Orr writes, “it’s a com­men­tary on the self-decep­tion we prac­tice when con­struct­ing the sto­ry of our own lives.”

One can hear even dark­er notes in anoth­er famous poem, “Mend­ing Wall,” in which a name­less, unfeel­ing “Some­thing” goes about its work of dis­man­tling the speaker’s best efforts, and all human work gen­er­al­ly. It’s a theme in much of Frost’s poet­ry that can, if ful­ly appre­ci­at­ed, inspire a dread as potent as that in the most baroque and florid of H.P. Lovecraft’s weird tales. Frost devel­oped his theme of cos­mic indif­fer­ence ear­ly, in “Stars,” from his first pub­lished col­lec­tion, A Boy’s Will. He intro­duces the poem in the table of con­tents with this suc­cinct descrip­tion: “There is no over­sight in human affairs,” a mat­ter-of-fact state­ment that scarce­ly pre­pares us for the unnerv­ing images to fol­low:

How count­less­ly they con­gre­gate
O’er our tumul­tuous snow,
Which flows in shapes as tall as trees
When win­try winds do blow!—

As if with keen­ness for our fate,
Our fal­ter­ing few steps on
To white rest, and a place of rest
Invis­i­ble at dawn,—

And yet with nei­ther love nor hate,
Those stars like some snow-white
Minerva’s snow-white mar­ble eyes
With­out the gift of sight.

In three short, dev­as­tat­ing stan­zas, Frost under­cuts ancient, com­fort­ing pre­ten­tions about the stars’ (or gods’) sen­tient benev­o­lence, with images and dic­tion that recall Thomas Hardy’s bleak lament “In Tene­bris” and antic­i­pate Wal­lace Stevens’ imper­son­al and chill­ing “The Snow Man.” The snow and ice in Frost’s poems are not part of the pret­ty scenery, but metonymic fig­ures of obliv­ion.

In short, the kind­ly old Robert Frost we think we know from the triv­ial mis­read­ing of “The Road Not Tak­en” is not the poet Robert Frost at all. Frost is a prick­ly, chal­leng­ing, even some­what devi­ous char­ac­ter whose pleas­ing­ly musi­cal lines and quaint, pas­toral images lure read­ers into poems that har­bor much less cheer­ful atti­tudes than they expect to find, and much more com­plex and mature ideas. The young Frost once described him­self as “not unde­sign­ing,” and in his lat­er, 1939 essay “The Fig­ure a Poem Makes,” he famous­ly declared that a poem “begins in delight and ends in wis­dom.”

In the two Spo­ti­fy playlists above (down­load Spo­ti­fy’s free soft­ware here), you can hear Frost read some of his most famous poems, includ­ing “The Road Not Tak­en,” “Mend­ing Wall,” “Noth­ing Gold Can Stay,” “After Apple Pick­ing,” “Death of a Hired Man,” and sev­er­al more. Not rep­re­sent­ed here, unfor­tu­nate­ly, are poems from the won­der­ful debut A Boy’s Will, but you can read that full col­lec­tion online here, and you should. Get to know the real Frost, if you haven’t already, and you’ll appre­ci­ate all the more why he’s one of the most cel­e­brat­ed poets in the Amer­i­can canon.

The read­ings above will be added to our col­lec­tion, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Down­load Great Books for Free.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Lis­ten to Robert Frost Read ‘The Gift Out­right,’ the Poem He Recit­ed from Mem­o­ry at JFK’s Inau­gu­ra­tion

Robert Frost Recites ‘Stop­ping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’

Library of Con­gress Launch­es New Online Poet­ry Archive, Fea­tur­ing 75 Years of Clas­sic Poet­ry Read­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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