The Poem

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

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“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 more a town.” The poem thus propels the reader both backward and forward in time. The reader is asked to acknowledge presences in absences, to accept the coexistence of the two.

Although it is unclear at first whether the narrator is the guide he mentions “Who only has at heart your getting lost,” he assumes that role later in the poem as his own desire to perplex becomes obvious. He describes a road into the past—one that evokes his own paranoid awareness of history—and pretends to soothe the reader’s fears “Of being watched from forty cellar holes” by explicitly pointing out that such perils exist. Skewering the reader with his dark humor throughout the poem, he is the personification of an unreliable narrator, someone whose word must be questioned at every turn.

In the last third of the poem, the narrator compares “the playhouse of the children” with the remains of a house, “a belilaced cellar hole.” He ironically eulogizes the latter, a decaying indentation rather than a sturdy, upright structure. Ultimately, however, the “house of make-believe” and the vanished “house in earnest” seem more alike than different. Is a “house in earnest” that no longer exists any more real than a make-believe one that still does? Regardless of the answer, the poem suggests a poignancy in both of them.

“Directive” seems to end on a note of spiritual renewal, but the “broken drinking goblet like the Grail” comes from the children’s playhouse; it is a parody of the legendary relic of biblical times. Because it is broken, this flawed vessel offers little in the way of lasting grace. If one is to “Drink and be whole again beyond confusion,” the experience of salvation promises to be as disturbing and unsatisfactory as the awkward journey toward the healing drink.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 605

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 of trees, the narrator declares: “Charge that to upstart inexperience./ Where were they all not twenty years ago?” While he seems to be referring, oddly, to the “inexperience” of the trees, the ironic comment may also apply to the “inexperience” of even the most seasoned traveler, reader, or self-proclaimed authority of any kind.

He obliquely answers his own question: “They think too much of having shaded out/ a few old pecker-fretted apple trees.” These lines imply that those who have overtaken and overshadowed their predecessors are not necessarily as grand as they think they are. The rhetorical question and its implied answer cause one further to doubt one’s own convictions. There is no solid ground, figurative or otherwise, in this particular journey.

The two parenthetical statements near the end of the poem further undermine the reader’s confidence in his or her own perceptions. The first one pretends to present knowledge that everyone already possesses: “(We know the valley streams that when aroused/ Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)” There is, however, nothing self-evident in the statement; the revelation is violent, conjuring up images of a biblical deluge or, at the very least, an overwhelming force lurking within a gentle current. The presumption that the reader would share this insight is disturbing in itself.

Frost’s second parenthetical insertion may seem to be a whimsical afterthought, but it serves to parody medieval legends about the Holy Grail, Christ’s cup at the Last Supper. In Frost’s ironic revision of the legends, “(I stole the goblet from the children’s playhouse.)” Thus the Grail is reduced to a stolen toy. It is one more of those “playthings” to which the narrator refers when he says: “Weep for what little things could make them glad.”

The paradoxes in “Directive” are reinforced by the perplexing landscape the narrator describes. Nothing is quite what it seems or what the reader might expect it to be—not house, farm, town, guide, or Holy Grail. Even the road “May seem as if it should have been a quarry.” The whole poem is akin to a difficult landscape in which one cannot move forward without constantly casting worried glances over one’s shoulder.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

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