Directive: Poem by Robert Frost - Summary & Analysis

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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.

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.

Summary and Analysis


      Directive, one of the most significant poems of Frost, was first published in 1942, in the volume entitled Steeple Bush. Frost was then in his seventy-second year.

      The poem Directive is an exposition of Frost's attitude towards life in general and Frost could not conceive of life without New England. Frost had seen the fast industrialization of New England and every step ahead in industrialization was a step towards agricultural decline and disintegration. That is why deserted houses and ruined farms recurring in his memory and colored by his imagination are recurring motifs in his poems. Jarrell has summed up his impression of the poem and its themes excellently in the following words. "But one of the strangest and most characteristic, most dismaying and most gratifying poems, any poet has ever written is a poem called Directive. It shows the coalescence of three of Frast's obsessive themes, those of isolation, of extinction, and of the final limitations of man - It is Frost's last word about all three". Untermeyer finds the poem impenetrable and is all praise for its unplumbed depths and intensity of feeling. It smells of New England - it is as lonely, dark and deep as New England woods. The poem, says a reputed critic "explores hidden meanings and scraps of old myths in its mixture of sadness and nostalgia"


      Throughout the poem we see the traveler hunting shadows of what were once concrete realities; ghosts the person once alive now dead. What strikes us with a remarkable dazzle of uniqueness is the fact that the poet, very confidently assures the traveler nat his salvation lies through these ruins of the past - one must grade whatever one can from the past and should mold it to brighten his present and future. The present will perhaps see only the efforts, but the future will De aglow with a rich harvest.

      In this poem, the poet gives directions to a traveler. He asks the traveler to travel along a road that leads to a deserted farmhouse. The present state of the farmhouse reminds the poet that in distant past, it flourished as a home for a farmer and his gay children. But now there are only signs of its extinction, the farmhouse being burned and ruined. The projections are dissolved, broken off and rubbed away by rough weather. It has now acquired dead magnificence, the simplicity of a graveyard, marble structure. The house, the farm, the town - they are all things of the past - now they are mere dregs of these things - stubborn ruins that refuse to be erased by the pressures of time. The poet yearns nostalgically for what is now a thing of the past - the poet wants to grip the grandeur of the past but it has already faded out of existence.

      The traveler moves on as per directive. He goes along the road which bore 'the wear of iron wagon like wheels'. He also comes across huge cracks and dents that look like quarries. As usual the poet attributes human actions to objects of nature. Frost intersperses his sighs with bright smiles that provide some comic relief from the heavy and nostalgic atmosphere that the conjures up here. As the traveler moves on, he is advised not to mind 'being watched from forty cellar holes', like 'eye pairs out of forty firkins'. The traveler is ironically advised to sing a cheerful song in a bleak, barren and dismally tragic setting. Even the woods come to life for four lines, showing excitement in the form of a rustle.

      While moving towards his destination, the traveler passes by a field which is whimsically said to be 'no bigger than a harness gall'.

      Then he comes to a house that the children had made while playing. Near this 'house of make-believe', there are certain broken dishes, hidden away. The traveler is asked to weep that such little, useless things can please children and adults as well. Here the poet brings out the littleness of human aspirations. Then the traveler reaches a deserted house that was once a real house. Near this house flows a brook of cold water, "the water of the house" this is the traveler's destination and destiny. It is the end of his journey and here lies the possibility of salvation for him. Now, the poet seems to take the traveler into confidence and like his well-wisher asks him to take out a goblet, hidden in "the instep arch of an old cellar", that grows beside the waterside. He also asks him to drink from the brook. This goblet and drinking from it seem to be an obvious parody of the Grail legend as it is linked to the Holy Grail. It will save him from confusion and chaos:

Here are your waters and your watering place
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Critical Analysis:

      Directive is one of those poems that has magnetically attracted critics. This poem has been praised for all its aspect by one critic or the other. But the most important and emphatic part of the poem, undoubtedly, is its thought content. Frost conveys his ideas through the symbolic and ironic mode. Symbolically, the journey of the traveler is a journey inwards, an exploration of the wounded psyche of the modern man", who, to use Shelley's words, falls "upon the thorns of life and bleeds". It is in fact, an epitome of man's attempt to explore and determine his inner reality and also on another level, his quest for spiritual salvation. Like the adventures of the Questors in the quest of the Holy Grail, it is a journey in search of spiritual ideas and ideals. The poem conveys to us that a search for the dead past is futile. One must be practical; try to love in the world of present even if it means having to sustain one's self on the dregs and ruins of the past. One can be clear-headed and sane only by living in the present, by drinking the clear waters of reality. The brook is a symbol of the principle of continuity - of the pastness as well as the presence of past, of the co-existence and concurrence of past and present. Only by recognizing this confluence and drinking from it can one hope to acquire that rounded wholeness, that spiritual power that is the ultimate aim of all thinking beings.

      In a full-length discussion of the poem, W.G.O' Donnell says: "Unusual and highly effective comparisons and conceits become part of the central experience, for the imagination in the poem has a metaphysical quality. Frost is not sending anyone back to the past of the land or subsistence farming or even to the country atmosphere. The destination turns out to be a brook, cold as a spring, the water of the house that once flourished at the top of the hill. It is not the American of the past that counts but the enduring source of wisdom that created a life full of vitality and happiness. As usual Frost's Directive points to no shortcut through current problems. What the poem affirms is the difficulty of finding a true source of spiritual strength. And this source, O' Donnell affirms, is a must if one is to be redeemed or to seek salvation.

      Randall Jarrell's comments throw light on the rich complexity of the poem. Jarrell admits that the poem has blind-spots, weak points, but, as he puts it "...these are nothing beside so much longing, tenderness, and passive Sadness. Frost's understanding that each lite is pathetic 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, a plaything hidden among the ruins of lost cultures... Is the poem consoling or heart-breaking very much of both and humor and acceptance and humanity, its familiarity and elevation, give it a composed matter-of-fact magnificence...the whole magical and helpless mastery of the poem, are things that many readers have noticed and will notice; the poem is hard to understand, but easy to love."


      This poem is perhaps one of the best poems of Frost. The ambiguity of the place visited by the traveler is the ambiguity of life itself. This poem is so loaded with meaning that it can easily be called a double-barrelled poem. The poem seems to say that the water of life must be drunk from the cup of imagination. But this cup of imagination must contain the cold actuality if one has to have something more than a broken cup. This poem is an achievement with regard to style as well. In this poem, Frost achieves a somber Miltonic diction. It is both a narrative and an invitation to return to the source. Perhaps what Frost wants to say with Eliot is, that man is not man without a sense of his roots, his past, nation, race - and that he is a complex of all these. Yet the poem also brings home a realization that mere longing for the past does not yield anything - it is only when past and present, heritage and modernity, imagination and reality join hands that there is any chance for the redemption of the individual.

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