Robert Frost – Directive


The rigidity of form and metre in this poem belies its reticence with respect to meaning. The stanzaless block of iambic pentameter suggests something concrete and tangible, but this is not what we are offered. What’s clear form the lethargic, reminiscent voice of the poem is a preoccupation with memory, history and confusion. There is a sense of narrative movement, as we are taken up a road, past a town and into mountains with a house and stream. Impressed upon us is the idea that what was here is no longer here; other than that we are left feeling that a deeper meaning is being withheld, that a more complete narrative lurks untold in the background. Part of the poem’s discourse is conveyed by this effect it has on the reader, a sense of unfulfillment and confusion.

Not far into the poem we begin to question who is speaking to us, and from what perspective. The ‘Directive’ of the title suggests a command, a set of instructions perhaps in a will. The speaker knows the place he’s describing, he offers directions and describes landmarks, ‘this side of Panther Mountain’. Yet the speaker is not present. The voice gains a complex character behind it when it suggests, ‘if you’ll let a guide direct you / Who only has at heart your getting lost’. This cryptic remark suggests that being ‘lost’ has a greater significance than its surface meaning – it seems almost to have a positive connotation, in that it instigates the journey and allows the rest of the poem to take place. The apparent futility and absurdity of a guide who gets you lost is clarified later by the idea of being ‘lost enough to find yourself’. The poem involves its reader in this ‘lostness’, withholding the placemarkers of clear character and narrative to generate confusion. ‘Finding oneself’ usually denotes a mental process, a personal examination of one’s own psyche, and there is evidence to suggest that this narrative is a kind of allegory for something happening within the mind. The image of detail dissolving ‘like graveyard marble sculpture’ at the start of the poem reflects the fading of memory over time. The way the poem chews itself up and reconstitutes itself in repeated phrases, ‘cellar holes’, and ‘playhouse’.

The portrayal of landscape in the poem also contributes to the idea that we are seeing into someone’s mind. The three bleak lines starting ‘There is a house that is no more a house’, project a landscape of absences – a void containing shadows of what it used to contain. This is another picture of frail memory. As the poem continues, however, this darkness is filled with scenery on an awesome, almost grotesque scale, the quarry with ‘great monolithic knees’, that in turn recalls for the speaker the ‘Glacier / That braced his feet’. Nature is personified as a crouched or lying giant, all legs and limbs – reflecting the distorting, romanticising effect of reconstituted memory. All the time these images are undermined, however, as the voice acknowledges that they are in some sense imagined, ‘as if it should have been a quarry’, ‘there’s something in a book about it’. The poem is almost grappling with itself over the substance or lack of it in these images, and the poem’s effort is in getting down to an essence of memory that can be trusted. Even here we have a conflict in terms of the direction to go looking for this truth: one set of images takes us from ‘knees’ down to ‘feet’ down to the ‘instep arch’, perhaps the leg shape of the glacier being echoed in the form of the poem. Meanwhile the ‘road’ leads upwards towards the source of ‘spring’ at the end of the poem.

The mood of the poem generally is one of sadness and loss. A sense of nostalgia is created by glimpses of pastoral warmth and beauty, ‘pecker-fretted apple trees’, where homely, dialectic diction suggests fondness and remembrance. These glimpses are brief, ceding to the grim present reality of the ‘road’, which reminds us that these rural scenes ‘are lost’. A sense of confusion is reinforced at the end of the poem where the ‘broken drinking goblet’, which with associations or Romance quests places itself as the ostensible object of the poem’s journey, turns out to have been stolen ‘from the children’s playhouse’. This is in itself ‘make-believe’, casting the journey of the poem in an ambivalent light. The waters that make us ‘whole again’ might be the forgetting waters of the river Lethe or the life-giving waters of the Bible – both would put us ‘beyond confusion’ in very different ways, through death or in perfect divine knowledge.

This poem deliberately resists linear interpretation in order to create in the reader an experience of confusion and being lost. It offers glimpses of an individual, personal narrative, but withholds information that would give a complete and concrete picture – leaving the reader feeling there is more meaning just out of reach.

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