Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

In “Birches,” first published in 1915, Frost writes that sometimes “life is too much like a pathless wood/ Where your face burns and tickles with the cobwebs/ Broken across it, and one eye is weeping/ From a twig’s having lashed across it open.” In that famous early poem, the narrator’s ingenuous desire to “get away from earth awhile/ And then come back” by swinging on birch limbs is easily appreciated. A trustworthy person who believes in the restorative powers of both heaven and earth, he stands in contrast to the more cynical narrator of “Directive.” The later poem develops the anxieties that are only touched upon in “Birches.”

The role of the narrator is central to the meaning of “Directive.” At every step of the journey, one must confront his unreliability, his willful perversity. He is determined to confound the reader, and in the end this antagonistic stance tells much about him.

A guide who speaks in knotty paradoxes, who demands undivided attention, who plans to get the reader lost, is someone fighting a significant battle with himself. His is a mind obsessed with the past, painfully aware of the forces in nature that can wipe out a detail on a tombstone, an apple tree, a whole village. He cannot comment on a deserted children’s playhouse without insinuating that the remains of an adult dwelling are equally pathetic. He equates a broken cup with the Holy Grail and then concludes: “Drink and be whole...

(The entire section is 462 words.)