Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 462

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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 again beyond confusion”—a command that dares the reader to believe in him at the last.

In “Directive,” Frost examines that dare and its pitfalls: Can one trust any narrator, real or fictive? (One might argue that to read a poem is to take the dare, to seek understanding beyond confusion.) The reader comes away with other questions as well. Does one achieve any wholeness upon completing the journey that the poem sets forth? What are the ramifications of acknowledging that many of one’s actions are based on a combination of misinformation and blind trust? Three decades after the gentle complicity of “Birches,” Frost creates a persona who is as hard to dismiss as he is to trust. Instead of nodding and smiling at the fellow who would swing boyishly on a birch limb, readers now draw back, puzzled and amazed by the guide who has turned against them.

More to the point, however, the narrator of “Directive” seems to have turned against himself. He is so aware of change and loss, so paranoid about the present, that he cannot offer solace to anyone. His paradoxical instructions may belie his own need for order, permanence, and solid ground. He himself may long for the purifying drink he mockingly offers to the reader in the end.