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Analysis of Poem "Directive" by Robert Frost

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

This article walks you through Robert Frost's poem "Directive," covering its use of metaphors, meter, symbols, and more.

This article walks you through Robert Frost's poem "Directive," covering its use of metaphors, meter, symbols, and more.

Robert Frost and a Summary of "Directive"

"Directive" is Robert Frost's "grail' poem, a single stanza of 62 lines that is essentially a journey through a life's work, a quest for fulfilment, an individual take on mortality and spirituality within the context of poetry.

Written when Frost was in his seventies, the poem is a reflective, typically ambiguous work that contains references to past poems, geographical places and biblical passages related to the worthiness of the individual - Frost and his poetry set before the divine.

Directive uses metaphor, symbol and allusion to attract the reader into a world of discovery and uncertainty. The speaker becomes a guide but the reader is given a kind of deal: come with me only if your getting lost is part of the exchange.

It's a poem of history, geography, legend; mountains, monoliths, the Grail and the new testament all feature. Frost seeks a form of redemption or renewal as he comes to the end of the quest, drinking of the water that is poetic inspiration. Becoming like a child again.

Is this poem an attempt on the poet's behalf to find God, a god? As ever with Frost nothing is clear-cut when it comes to matters of faith in a conventional (Christian) god. Here's his tongue-in-cheek couplet:

[FORGIVE, O LORD]:

“Forgive, O Lord, my little jokes on Thee

And I'll forgive Thy great big one on me."

Again, in a letter to G.R. Elliot dated 28th April 1947 Frost wrote:

My fear of God has settled down into a deep inward fear that my best offering may not prove acceptable in his sight.

Frost also wrote a poem titled "The Fear of God," published in the volume Steeple Bush (1947 Henry Holt and Company), a book that contains several important poems exploring Frost's approach to faith and morality, including "Directive."

There's no doubt that "The Fear of God" and "Directive" are related biographically to an undecided search for the divine, alongside the two additional poems that sandwich the latter, "One Step Backward Taken" and "Too Anxious For Rivers," both of which focus on life's spiritual pressures.

"Directive" is a mix of :

  • the factual and the mystical — take Panther Mountain, for example, contrasted with a broken drinking goblet like the Grail.
  • the poetical and the biblical — take The road/As for the woods/pull in your ladder/A brook alongside And if you're lost enough to find yourself (Luke 9: 24)/as St Mark (Mark 8: 34-38) says they mustn't.

All of these elements are interwoven in Frost's imaginary narrative, poetic devices such as enjambment in certain passages encouraging the reader on, whilst caesurae and carefully placed punctuation hold and pause.

From the outset, there is a sense of escapism, of letting go and getting out (of life and work and time). But this is no escape from materialism, as Wordsworth suggested in his sonnet "The World Is Too Much With Us."

"Directive" is Frost's attempt to understand his past, his creativity, his relationship to the divine. Ultimately his quest is to be whole, transfigured, spiritually complete within the context of his creativity, which is innocence at play. Or is it?

Frost said this about his verses:

These poems are written in parable so the wrong people won't understand, and so be saved.

Read More From Owlcation

"Directive" then is a type of twisted parable, that is, fiction turned verse turned concealed truth; language is used to deliver a spiritual message.

Water becomes all-important in this poem, symbolic of regeneration. Many influential poets have focused on water as an essential element in their work — W.B.Yeats for example. Wallace Stevens is another.

There are parallels between Frost's poem and T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" part V, What The Thunder Said. Certain lines in Eliot's epic resonate with certain passages in "Directive":

Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think
Sweat is dry and feet are in the sand
If there were only water amongst the rock
Dead mountain mouth of carious teeth that cannot spit
Here one can neither stand nor lie nor sit
There is not even silence in the mountains
But dry sterile thunder without rain
There is not even solitude in the mountains
But red sullen faces sneer and snarl
From doors of mudcracked houses

"Directive" gradually moves towards the legendary and the biblical, Frost's first-person speaker focusing on water in the final fourteen lines, directing another person (or confirming to himself) — Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

It took time for readers and scholars to get a grip on "Directive," but it is now acknowledged to be among his best, later work. Blending fact and legend it is a parable-like journey towards salvation and deliverance, the tensions strange and tangential, the risk taunting.

As Randell Jarrell, poet and writer, observed:

There are weak places in the poem, but these are nothing beside so much longing, tenderness and passive sadness, Frost's understanding that each life is tragic because it wears away into the death that it at last half-welcomes — that even its salvation, far back at the cold root of things, is make-believe, drunk from a child's broken and stolen goblet hidden among the ruins of the lost cultures. Much of the strangeness of the poem is far under the surface, or else so much on the surface, in the subtlest of details (how many readers will connect the "serial ordeal" of the eye-pairs with the poem's Grail-parody?), that one slides under it unnoticing.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

Directive

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,
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 road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,
May seem as if it should have been a quarry —
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.
And there's a story in a book about it:
Besides the wear of iron wagon wheels
The ledges show lines ruled southeast-northwest,
The chisel work of an enormous Glacier
That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole.
You must not mind a certain coolness from him
Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.
As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.
Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.
Make yourself up a cheering song of how
Someone's road home from work this once was,
Who may be just ahead of you on foot
Or creaking with a buggy load of grain.
The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.
And if you're lost enough to find yourself
By now, pull in your ladder road behind you
And put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.
Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.
First there's the children's house of make-believe,
Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.
Weep for what little things could make them glad.
Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.
This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.
Your destination and your destiny's
A brook that was the water of the house,
Cold as a spring as yet so near its source,
Too lofty and original to rage.
(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)
I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside
A broken drinking goblet like the Grail
Under a spell so the wrong ones can't find it,
So can't get saved, as Saint Mark says they mustn't.
(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Analysis of Directive Line By Line 1 - 36

Lines 1 - 7

The first line suggests that the speaker is addressing a group, a collective, demanding that they retreat, get out of a situation that isn't healthy or stable. They have to withdraw because the consequences of remaining are unknown. There is a sense of being overwhelmed; the situation being too much.

There are obvious echoes here from William Wordsworth's 1802 sonnet "The World Is Too Much With Us" — the pressures of an ever-increasing busy life, filled with material things, full of stress, cause a need to escape, to leave the present and reflect.

The repeated word Back implies going back in time, in memory, which isn't quite what it was. There has been some destruction, something lost, through fire and water. A natural disaster of sorts.

The first strong image appears — marble sculpture in a graveyard broken off, perhaps on a family grave. And to set this image in context there is a house, a farm, a town — but they're all not what they were. They're ruins. The repeated no more underlines the idea of loss.

Are these images of the abandoned farms and properties that occurred during the dustbowl era, when whole families were forced to leave the land they worked and lived on?

These first seven lines create a rather doomful historic scenario for the reader. A landscape now burnt, dissolved, appears to be the result of natural phenomena. And someone, part of a group perhaps, wants out.

Lines 8 - 17

The reader is enlightened a little in line 8 as the speaker, as if looking at the scene from a slight distance alongside the reader, volunteers to be a guide, pointing out a road that is not what it seems.

Frost is well known for his poem The Road Not Taken, which is open to interpretation for readers but involves passing up one route for another, hopefully without getting lost.

In "Directive" the reader may well lose their bearings — this road might also be a quarry, for monoliths stand (think of Stonehenge in England), anthropomorphised as knees and now in open view, though the town previously didn't want this.

Did the town want to hide or disguise its history with regard to these great blocks of rock? Ancient people needed stones for their community health and spiritual wellbeing. They were symbols of a greater presence, unchanging, solid, foundational for the spirit.

People recorded the importance of these stones, fictional or otherwise. History moves along, people with their ingenuity too, inventing the wheel over time, those wheels scarring the road.

And a glacier, personified, marked the ledges in a particular direction, moving slow and strong with his feet against the Arctic Pole.

There is the idea of a giant becoming apparent in these lines, reflecting the power inherent in Nature, against which humans are somewhat feeble. The landscape is given human features — monoliths are knees, a glacier has feet. And the coolness from this giant still haunts this side of Panther Mountain (in the Catskill Range, NY).

Is the reader being told not to mind? Or is this the guide reminding the poet (the poet directing his old self?) not to take his presence too seriously?

Lines 18 - 36

Frost liked to challenge his readers in his longer poems, despite him claiming that a poem starts in delight and ends in wisdom and is a momentary stay against confusion.

What of being watched by eye pairs from forty cellar holes? And why is this an ordeal? A firkin by the way is a small wooden rounded cask. This is an eerie image, worthy of a cartoon or a horror movie.

Frost is reinforcing the idea of life being somewhat torturous. It's not the easy ride some might say it is or will be. He's putting himself, and the reader, on the rocky road to wherever. But alongside this is a reassuring voice of experience saying not to mind these things, for they will pass.

The significance of the number forty is that Christ spent forty days and nights in the wilderness, the Judean desert, summoning up his strength for the ministry ahead.

Here he was tempted three times by the Devil, taken up to a mountain and shown all the kingdoms that could be his, asked to make stone into bread, and tempted to jump off a high temple pinnacle, where angels would save him from death. (Luke 4:1–13 and Matthew 4:1–11.)

Cellars are dark and deep, storage spaces for food and alcohol. The eyes are human presumably, family eyes keeping hold of what they've got, following, slightly creepy.

And the woods recall Frost's famous poem "Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening." This time instead of snow and promises, there is a light rustle and excitement and the admission of inexperience. Frost as upstart?

Where were they all twenty years ago? The trees? Here there is longing and also allusion to another of Frost's pastoral poems "After Apple-Picking," where work, sleep and dreaming blur.

We're still on the road, this poem is all about the journey through life, the questing, the history, the creativity. The idea that you, the author and the speaker are all on the same road, being directed, or becoming lost.

Picture a worker coming home with grain (to make the bread?) and use it as inspiration for a folk-song, uplifting. Again, Frost's early poem, "The Aim Was Song," is related.

Two village cultures faded then are lost. The height of the country is a hill, a mountain, or the best the country can be? The height of achievement?

Line 35 has a full stop caesura, a complete stop. This has to be significant. Is this Frost declaring, at just after half-way through, his strength of creativity? He loses both.

Line By Line Analysis of Directive 37 - 62

Lines 37 - 52

The guide/speaker advises — if you're lost enough to find yourself then its time to use the CLOSED sign. If the road wasn't confusing enough already, Frost references"After Apple-Picking" again (the poem where the ladder points to heaven) and focuses on the individual's will when it comes to continuing this arduous journey.

CLOSED implies cut-off, isolation. Nobody can enter the zone of me. This is ego territory. Get used to it. The road narrows, the field (of operation, of poetry) is small, no bigger than a harness gall, a wound/hardened scar created by the rubbing of a harness on the skin of a horse.

The imagery that follows relates to childhood and innocence and domestic strife, perhaps taken from Frost's own experiences as a child. These images, of a children's house, smashed dishes under a pine and some playthings could well be imaginary, in the mind of the guide.

These lines are sad, sensitively handled, and relate to innocence and simplicity and ruin. Here is the house that is no more (as mentioned in the previous opening lines), the hole closing like a dent in dough, tenderly described as belilaced, covered in lilacs, a very domestic image.

Line 48 upsets the nostalgia trip, the guide suddenly declaring that the playhouse was anything but playful, it was a house in earnest, that is, a serious place to be in. This line contrasts sharply with what has gone before; it almost sounds as if the speaker has altered course, or changed in character.

Is Frost going back to his own childhood family experiences again? A mix of the positive and negative? The warm and the cold?

Lines 49-52 introduce destination and destiny, the former a place where a journey ends, the latter related to fate and outcomes. The brook features strongly in Frost's work, as in West-Running Brook, and represents the well-spring of creativity/poetics.

Lines 53 - 62

Here it provides for the house, but is too lofty (proud and aloof) and original to rage. Frost's early output of work compared with the mainstream? If this is a physical description of the brook then the two lines in parentheses, about valley streams, are a straightforward comparison.

For some, "Directive" is ultimately about the element of water and its relevance within the context of spiritual nourishment through creative work, a life's poetry.

The journey along the road, through time, past the mountain and the wood, touching on the children's house and domestic memories, leads to the grail goblet, hidden, because that is the way of tradition.

The cedar is a tree Frost used in "An Encounter," a poem set in a swamp, and it serves here as provider of the space for the goblet. Note the use of the word instep, anatomical language again.

And there is yet another biblical allusion, this time from the gospel of Saint Mark (see above separate section). The theme is loss and gain. Lose one kind of life, gain another.

So the last two lines of guidance, the last directive, encourage the drinking of water from the stolen goblet to stave off confusion. To be made spiritually whole again, following a demanding and confusing journey, is the goal.

Frost's lifelong battle with the creative forces comes to an end, of sorts, and the reader is left with a mesmerising array of images, symbols and allusions, laid out in typical iambic lines syntactically arranged to deliver that familiar yet complex simple diction.

"Directive" is ambiguous. You're taken on a pilgrimage through a legendary landscape, signposted by Frost's work here and there; asked to lose yourself in the manner of Christ who fasted in the wilderness for forty days so he could face humankind again.

Having overcome a kind of wasteland you eventually are offered a drink from the broken grail goblet (it has to be flawed), hoping that you are one of those who can be saved, made whole again.

What Is the Meter of Frost's "Directive"?

Frost, master of the poetic line, wasn't one for free verse. He preferred neat and tidy iambics mostly, ten syllables more or less with the odd nine or eleven syllable line here and there.

Directive is blank verse essentially — unrhymed iambic pentameter. But there are deviations from the daDUM daDUM regular iambic beat. Trochee, spondee, pyrrhic,anapaest and amphibrach feet break up the rhythm in certain lines. Frost's syntax encourages both flow and restraint, a measured approach throughout being typical.

Out of the 62 lines only 18 stray from the ten syllable classic five foot line (17 have eleven syllables, 1 has nine).

Let's take a closer look at the opening nineteen lines:


Back out / of all / this now / too much / for us,

Back in / a time / made sim / ple by / the loss

Of de / tail, burned, / dissolved, / and bro / ken off

Like grave / yard mar / ble sculp / ture in / the weather,*

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 road / there, if / you'll let / a guide / direct you *

Who on / ly has / at heart / your gett / ing lost,

May seem / as if / it should / have been / a quarry — *

Great mon / olith / ic knees / the for / mer town

Long since / gave up / pretense / of keep / ing covered. *

And there's / a stor / y in / a book / about it: *

Besides / the wear / of ir / on wag / on wheels

The ledge / s show / lines ruled / southeast- / northwest,

The chis / el work / of an / enor /mous Glacier *

That braced / his feet / against / the Arc / tic Pole.

You must / not mind / a cert / ain cool / ness from him *

Still said / to haunt / this side / of Panth / er Mountain. *

* 11 syllables, extra beat

The first line is unusual in having so many stresses but this reinforces the idea of backing out, a definite removal. Spondees (DADUM) add something extra to both syllables.

Iambic feet dominate which gives an underlying stability to the poem, reflecting Frost's New England folky diction.

The lines with the extra unstressed syllable at the end could be scanned as amphibrachs (daDUMda), lengthening the line which also falls away.

Lines 3,5,6,7,9,14,15,17 are pure iambic pentameter and restore the rhythmic order which Frost so prefers.

Directive continues with iambics to the fore, eleven syllable lines consistently stretching, bringing subtle differences to the basic rhythm, challenging the reader in a quiet yet telling fashion.

"Directive" and the Bible

"Directive" has clear connections to the bible, specifically the new testament stories of Christ in lines 8/9:

Mark 8: 34-38

34 - And when he had called the people unto him with his disciples also, he said unto them, Whosoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me.

35 - For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same shall save it.

36 - For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?

37 - Or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?

38 - Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation; of him also shall the Son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.

John 4 : 10-14

10 - Jesus answered and said to her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is who says to you, ‘Give Me a drink,’ you would have asked Him, and He would have given you living water.”

11 - The woman said to Him, “Sir, You have nothing to draw with, and the well is deep. Where then do You get that living water? 12 Are You greater than our father Jacob, who gave us the well, and drank from it himself, as well as his sons and his livestock?”

13 - Jesus answered and said to her, “Whoever drinks of this water will thirst again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst. But the water that I shall give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.”

Matthew 18: 1-5

1 - At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?

2 - And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,

3 - And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.

4 - Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

5 - And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.

Sources

The Hand of the Poet, Rizzoli, 1997

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

Doyle, John Robert. “A Reading of Robert Frost’s ‘Directive.’” The Georgia Review, vol. 22, no. 4, Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia by and on Behalf of the University of Georgia and the Georgia Review, 1968, pp. 501–08, http://www.jstor.org/stable/41396502.

The Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 1946 (for original version of poem which at line 40 starts You see)

Robert Frost: The Ethics of Ambiguity - John H. Timmerman - Google Books, Bucknell University Press, 2002

The Ordeal of Robert Frost: The Poet and His Poetics - Mark Richardson, Carolyn Richardson - Google Books, University of Illinois, 1997.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 Andrew Spacey

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