The Poem

“Directive” is a sixty-two-line poem in blank verse. Because it contains elements of the lyric, the dramatic monologue, the narrative poem, the parody, and the meditation, it is difficult to classify. Its ambiguous form complements the unsettled, willfully contradictory quality that infuses the whole poem. The title, suggesting an important instruction or edict, is also ambiguous, since the various instructions given in the poem are neither clear nor easily followed; the poem is as much anti-directive as directive.

Addressing an unspecified “you,” with whom the reader may identify, the poem contains a series of imperative (or command) sentences. In line 38, however, two-thirds of the way through the poem, the narrator reveals a first-person identity. From that point on, the poem evolves into a confrontation between narrator and implied reader. The poem begins by creating the illusion of a particular time and place: “Back out of all this now too much for us,/ Back in a time made simple by the loss/ Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off/ Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather.” These slippery lines do not, in fact, specify a time or place; they start in nostalgia and end in an ominous reference to the human inability to fathom the past.

The contradictions continue in the lines that complete the opening statement: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm/ And in a town that is no...

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Forms and Devices

Robert Frost is a master of paradox—that is, the formulation of contradictory statements that contain surprising truths. “Directive” as a whole is grounded in paradox. As a result, one may come away from it questioning not merely the reliability of its narrator but the reliability of all narrators as well, whether they are poets, prophets, or signs along the road. The poem’s paradoxical nature is quickly established in the contradictory representations of house, farm, and town. The “guide” is also a paradoxical figure, since his directions are intended to confuse. And the narrator who pretends to assuage the reader’s anxieties seems to be a malevolent puppeteer. The effect of all this is to undermine one’s confidence in him—and in one’s own ability to interpret fact, doctrine, and truth.

Certain capitalized words add to the poem’s disconcerting quality. The “enormous Glacier” evokes a past that is both powerful and frightening. “Panther Mountain,” the remains of prehistoric shifts in land and ice, suggests wildness and danger lurking in the present. The capitalized “Grail,” along with “Saint Mark,” reminds the reader how much importance has been placed in myth and doctrine grounded in faith; the sign reading “CLOSED to all but me” is an unsettling reminder of how limited human perceptions often are.

Frost’s use of a single rhetorical question also deserves attention. After describing the startling rustling sounds...

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