Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both and be one traveller, long I stood and looked down one as far as I could to where it bent in the undergrowth; then took the other, as just as fair, and having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear; though as for that the passing there had worn them really about the same, and both that morning equally lay in leaves no step had trodden black. Oh, I kept the first for another day! Yet knowing how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back. 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 travelled by, and that has made all the difference.
Now Frost does not specify if he had gone left or right, but the trope appears to tell that he went right, the path "less travelled by." Which brings us to explain the trope as it appears in one of its most detailed examples: an eighteenth-century allegory by Edward Moore, meant for British girls of the Age of Enlightenment, standing on the threshold of adulthood. Coming of age is depicted as a fork at which turning left is wrong and turning right is... well, right. Yet the right-hand path is the dangerous, harsh one, ultimately leading ad augusta per angusta; while the primrose path to the left is easy and pleasant... yet sinister at the end of the day.
“Far to the right thy prospect bend,
Where yonder tow’ring hills ascend;
Lo! there the arduous path’s in view,
Which VIRTUE, and her sons, pursue;
With toil, o’er less’ning earth they rise,
And gain, and gain upon the skies.—
Narrow’s the way her children tread,
No walk for pleasure smoothly spread;
But rough, and difficult, and steep,
Painful to climb, and hard to keep.
“Fruits immature those lands dispense,
A food indelicate to sense,
Of taste unpleasant, yet from those
Pure HEALTH, with cheerful VIGOUR flows;
And strength unfeeling of decay,
Throughout the long laborious way.
“Hence, as they scale that heav’nly road,
Each limb is lighten’d of its load:
From earth refining still they go,
And leave the mortal weight below;
Then spreads the strait, the doubtful clears,
And smooth the rugged path appears;
For custom turns fatigue to ease,
And, taught by VIRTUE, PAIN can please.
“At length, the toilsome journey o’er,
And near the bright celestial shore,
A gulf, black, fearful, and profound,
Appears, of either world the bound.
Thro’ darkness, leading up to light,
Sense backward shrinks, and shuns the sight; For there the transitory train,
Of time, and form, and care, and pain,
And matter’s gross incumb’ring mass,
Man’s late associates, cannot pass,
But sinking, quit th’ immortal charge,
And leave the wond’ring soul at large;
Lightly she wings her obvious way,
And mingles with eternal day.
“Thither, O thither, wing thy speed,
Tho’ PLEASURE charm, or PAIN impede;
To such th’ all-bounteous pow’r has giv’n,
For present earth, a future heav’n;
For trivial loss, unmeasur’d gain,
And endless bliss, for transient pain.
Then fear, ah! fear, to turn thy sight,
Where yonder flow’ry fields invite;
Wide on the left the path-way bends,
And with pernicious ease descends;
There, sweet to sense, and fair to show,
New-planted EDEN seems to blow;
Trees that delicious poison bear,
For DEATH is vegetable there.
“Hence is the frame of health unbrac’d,
Each sinew slack’ning at the taste;
The soul to passion yields her throne,
And sees with organs not her own;
While, like the slumb’rer in the night,
Pleas’d with the shadowy dream of light,
Before her alienated eyes
The scenes of fairy-land arise;
The puppet-world’s amusing show,
Dipt in the gaily colour’d bow;
Sceptres, and wreaths, and glitt’ring things,
The toys of infants and of kings,
That tempt along the baneful plain,
The idly wise, and lightly vain;
Till verging on the gully shore,
Sudden they sink, to rise no more.
Edmund Arwaker, in his Pia Desideria, tackles the trope of the bivium as well:
(Book II, Emblem II):
In what a maze of Error do I stray,
Where various Paths confound my doubtful Way!
This, to the Right; That to the Left-hand lies:
Here, Vales descend; there swelling Mountains rise:
This has an easie, That a rugged way;
The treach'ry This conceals, That does betray.
But Whither these so diff'rent Courses go,
Their wandring Paths forbid, till try'd, to know.
Not the fictitious Labyrinth of old
Did in more dubious Paths its Guests infold;
Here greater Difficulties stay my Feet,
And on each Road I thwarting Dangers meet.
Nor I the diff'rent windings only fear,
(In which the Artist's Skill did most appear:)
But, more to heighten and increase my Dread,
Darkness involves each doubtful Step I tread.
Evan van der Millner on the forked path of the coming of age.
The dualism of this choice was traditionally symbolised by the left and right. The right hand, with which one (most usually) fought and wrote, has always been positive in connotation; its counterpart the left, weak hand. If one surveys the words for 'left' and 'right' in European languages, one finds that the latter are groups of cognates—dexios, dexter, destra and diritto, dereche, direita, droit, rechte, right, deis—and the former mostly unrelated—laios, sinister, lasciato, izquierdo, linke, gauche, left, clé. This is because words for 'left', with their negative connotations, have undergone taboo-substitution from foreign sources; izquierdo, for instance, is Basque ("ezker"). So are esquerre and esquerdo (all Iberian Romance languages have adopted the Basque euphemism. In fact, Italian is the only Romance language to retain the original sinistro instead of replacing it with a euphemism) To call someone gauche or sinister is to insult him—whereas to call him adroit or dextrous is high praise. It is no coincidence that right should have its two primary meanings, nor that left should come from a root meaning 'lame' or 'weak.' The moral dualism of the hands/directions is not left linguistically implicit among the Greeks, but explicitly formulated; a passage in Aristotle describes a Pythagorean table of opposites, including "left" on the minus pole/yin and "right" on the plus pole/yang.
Throughout late antiquity, the Y was an accepted symbol of pagan ethics, of the choice between the hard path (right) and the easy path (left).
We find in the Pythagorean Y two things: an aesthetic delight in binaries or complementaries, and an ethical attempt to associate virtue with hardship—and it is only by making virtue difficult that the professional moralist asserts his central value in society. If it were acceptable to follow the road of delights and pleasure, what need would one have for authority?
In fact, the first codifier of the Pythagorean bivium in literature may come from the Aeneid, whose sixth book codified the geography of the underworld for centuries throughout fiction:
And it was now past noonday, and the two had spent in talk all the allotted time. Therefore the Sibyl spake: “Night cometh, Æneas, and we waste the day in tears. Lo! here are two roads. This on the right hand leadeth to the palace and to the Elysian plains; and that on the left to Tartarus, the abode of the wicked.” And Deïphobus answered: “Be not wroth, great priestess; I depart to my own place. Do thou, my friend, go on and prosper.”
But as Æneas looked round he saw a great building, and a three-fold wall about it, and round the wall a river of fire. Great gates there were, and a tower of brass, and the fury Tisiphone sat as warder. Also he heard the sound of those that smote upon an anvil, and the clanking of chains. And he stood, and said, “What mean these things that I see and hear?” Then the Sibyl made answer: “The foot of the righteous may not pass that threshold. But when the Queen of hell gave me this office she herself led me through the place and told me all. There sitteth Rhadamanthus the Cretan, and judgeth the dead. And them that be condemned Tisiphone taketh, and the gate which thou seest openeth to receive them. And within is a great pit, and the depth thereof is as the height of heaven. Herein lie the Titans, the sons of Earth, whom Jupiter smote with the thunder; and herein the sons of Aloeus, who strove to thrust the gods from heaven... And over some hangs a great stone ready to fall; and some sit at the banquet, but when they would eat, the Fury at their side forbids, and rises and shakes her torch and thunders in their ears. These are they who while they were yet alive hated their brothers, or struck their parents, or deceived one that trusted them, or kept their riches for themselves, nor cared for those of their own household (a great multitude are they), or stirred up strife. And of these some roll a great stone and cease not, and some are bound to wheels, and some sit for ever crying, ‘Learn to do righteousness and to fear the Gods.’”
And when the priestess had finished these words they hastened on their way. And, after a while, she said, “Lo! here is the palace which the Cyclopés built for the Lord and the Queen of hell. Here must we offer the gift of the bough of gold.” And this being accomplished, they came to the dwellings of the righteous. Here are green spaces, with woods about them; and the light of their heaven is fuller and brighter than that which mortals behold. Another sun they have and many other stars. Some of them contend together in wrestling and running; and some dance in measure, singing the while a pleasant song; and Orpheus, clad in a long robe, makes music, touching his harp, now with his fingers and now with an ivory bow. Here did Æneas marvel to see the mighty men of old, such as were Ilus, and Dardanus. Their spears stood fixed in the earth, and their horses fed about the plain; for they love spear and chariot and horses, even as they loved them upon earth. And others sat and feasted, sitting on the grass in a sweet-smelling grove of bay, whence flows the river which men upon the earth call the Po. Here were they who had died for their country, and holy priests, and poets who had uttered nothing base, and such as had found out witty inventions, or had done great good to men. All these had snow-white garlands on their heads.
Indeed, this trope still lives on in our days, in the usual positions of the shoulder angel and demon. The latter is always perched on the sinister shoulder and whispers in the left ear of the tempter... A more realistic example can be seen with Iago in various versions of Othello:
In Dokidoki Precure, the corrupted hearts are pulled out of the victims' left breasts, and return to the same place once purified:
In the same series: The "light" half of the heart, that would become Aguri, is the right one ("light" and "right" are, by the way, homophones in Japanese, both pronounced "raito"); while the "dark" half, that would become Regina, is the sinister one.
"Alright, this is how evil works. This is why evil loves free will so much. Because humans use it to follow their hearts. And evil takes advantage of that."
Our hearts are, significantly, turned towards the left side (unless we have dextrocardia). Perchance this is the reason why the primrose path is the one most travelled by...
The fact that laevocardia/sinistrocardia is the usual condition of the heart's place brings us to another overly used trope that is actually a fallacy: in fiction, if a thoracic wound (be it on shoulders, back, chest, or sides) has been inflicted on the right side, the injured person survives; if the trauma has been inflicted on the left, that person dies a painful, excruciating death (due to a punctured lung).
I like to call it the Sinister Injury Fallacy. And there are actually works of fiction that subvert the trope, whether Haikara-san ga tooru (Lieutenant Shinobu Ijuuin, his left lung punctured by a bayonet stab, though left for dead on the battlefield, actually survives and reunites with his loved ones) or some of my own stories, including the Ringstetten Saga.