The Poem

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

“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.

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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...

(The entire section contains 1286 words.)

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