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Robert Frost's "Directive"

Updated on March 10, 2018
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

Robert Frost

Commemorative Stamp 1974
Commemorative Stamp 1974 | Source

Introduction and Text of Poem, "Directive"

Robert Frost's "Directive" demonstrates the poet's meaning behind his quip that writing free verse is like playing tennis without a net. The poet has stripped away his net but manages to impose on this little drama a rather useful form without a form. Each line holds the poet accountable for its efficacy as he tumbles metaphors over the imaginary net, managing to finish the game without much loss of skill.

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.

Reading of Frost's "Directive"

Commentary

In the poem, "Directive," the speaker is musing on and philosophizing about the nature of worldly temporality.

First Movement: A Vanished Farmhouse

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.

The speaker is looking at a landscape that once contained a farm with a farmhouse. The house is no longer there and thus the farm appears to be abandoned and is, in fact, no more a farm. The missing residents along with the uncultivated land remind the speaker of graveyard marble sculpture in the weather—tombstones that have been eroded by wind and rain as decades and centuries, perhaps, have passed.

The road that winds past the house offers the wandering speaker/visitor no help in navigating the emotions that arise from observing the devastation that was once the property of a living family. What makes matters worse is that not only is a house and farm missing, but the nearby town is gone as well. Not only one family has been disappeared, but many families also are gone, leaving only certain worn reminders.

Second Movement: Filling the Emotional Gap

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.

The speaker reports that there is a story in a book about it, but the story features the bare details of "iron wagon wheels," and "ledges [that] show lines ruled southeast-northwest," and the "chisel work of an enormous Glacier." These mundane facts, while interesting in geologic time, do not fill the emotional gap left by the knowledge of loss associated so intimately with human lives.

Third Movement: Feelings of Loss

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.

Even though the nearby wooded area may throw excitement over you, it cannot begin to assuage the feeling of loss. The trees that many woodpeckers have fretted are still apple trees, but the speaker asks, "Where were they all not twenty years ago?"

The light that still rustles through the trees and rushes through their leaves reminds the speaker of the old adage, If a tree falls in the forest, does it make a sound, if no one is there to hear it? He implies his answer when he asserts, "[c]harge that to upstart inexperience."

Fourth Movement: A Cheering Song to Fill the Loss

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.

The speaker musing to himself tells his alter ego to "make yourself up a cheering song" about a possible resident who lived on this road. In the song, he might sing about how the man is walking just ahead of him or riding a buggy load of grain. The speaker asserts that the song's main theme constitutes an adventure the height of which is that "two village cultures faded / Into each other." And the kicker is that both of them are lost.

Fifth Movement: Lost and Found in a World of Trivia

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.

In this movement, the speaker philosophizes about the nature of losing and finding oneself in the world's trivia. If you want privacy, simply install a "CLOSED" sign on your mental road where no one will be admitted except the speaker. No other field will be in sight except a very small one reserved for the imagination of its owner.

Sixth Movement: Playhouse of a Child

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.

The speaker then begins a rumination, in keeping with the privacy he secured for himself in the last movement, about playthings in the playhouse of the children, which takes him nowhere, and he laments, "This was no playhouse but a house in earnest."

Seventh Movement: The Pain of Evanescence

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.

The speaker concludes his little drama by asserting that the goal of his wandering is a brook that was the water of the house. He makes much of how cold the water is and that sometimes people are wont to place drinking cups nearby so they can easily quench their thirst when they find themselves near the spring.

The speaker refers to the cup as a broken drinking goblet like the Grail. The trick is to hide the Grail so others will not find it. But the notion of loss remains with speaker as he admits that no water, no Grail, nothing is going to fill in that confusion and pain of knowing the evanescence of worldly things.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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