Robert Frost

‘Directive’ by Robert Frost is about the relationship between the past and the present. It is a very well regarded poem that has been described as “dismaying” and “gratifying.”

Robert Frost

Nationality: American

Robert Frost is one of the most popular American poets of all time.

His highly accessible work made him famous in his lifetime.

In ‘Directive,’ the speaker asks the traveler to go back from the present confused times to a time in the past, which was simple and which has been blurred or broken like ‘the graveyard marble sculpture by bad weather’. He further tells the traveler to travel on the road leading to a farmhouse which was once inhabited by people, but is deserted now, and where no farming activity is carried on now. There is what was once a town, but what is now a desolate place. The reference here is to the changed condition of New England which was a glorious land in the past, but whose glory has been lost now.

Directive by Robert Frost

Directive Analysis

Lines 1-18

Back out of all this now too much for us,


You must not mind a certain coolness from him

If the traveler travels under the direction of a guide, he may find the road uneven and full of pits and holes like a quarry, and mounds like huge knees of a giant which are no longer kept covered. The dents and holes may have been made by the act of chiseling by a huge Glacier which stretched or rested his feet ‘against the Arctic Pole.

Lines 19-23

Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain.


As for the woods’ excitement over you

The poet, in these lines, tells the traveler that the Glacier still exists on this side of the Panther Mountain, and the latter should not mind the coolness caused by it. Nor should the traveler mind the bitter experience or ordeal of being watched from forty ‘collar holes’ that are like the eye-like openings in forty casks or barrels, staring at him.

Lines 24-29

That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,


Make yourself up a cheering song of how

So far as the excitement felt by the woods over the presence of the traveler is concerned, they express it by making their leaves rustle lightly in the wind. They feel excited because of being ignorant of, or unacquainted with, him. These words feel proud of having been able to provide shade and shelter to ‘a few old pecker-fretted apple trees.’

Lines 30-35

Someone’s road home from work this once was,


Into each other. Both of them are lost.

The road is in a bad shape, and the landscape around it is desolate-looking. But the poet directs the travelers to sing a cheerful song about how it was the road on which someone else, walking back homeward from his place of work, traveled earlier carrying a heavy load of grain and panting under that load.

Lines 36-40

And if you’re lost enough to find yourself


Now left’s no bigger than a harness gall.

The destination of the traveler lies on the height of the country where two village cultures have been fused, and then faded out. The traveler who is lost and confused in his present journey, should leave the road behind him and reach the home or the place or the source from where this road has started.

Lines 41-46

First there’s the children’s house of make-believe,


But only a belilaced cellar hole,

There is a very small field there. Then there is a house made by children as a make-believe playhouse in which there are some dishes and toys for the children. The traveler may regret the grown-up people’s interest in illusory joys in big things, and see how children feel glad about very small things.

Lines 47-54

Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.


Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)

From the children’s playhouse, the traveler is directed to proceed to a real deserted house meant for the grown-ups, from where he may be led to a cold brook which used to supply water to the house, and which is his destination. This brook is cold, but ‘very near its source’. It is high and deep enough not to make much sound. The poet here seems to refer to the pure original source or form or the condition of life found existing in New England.

Lines 55-62

I have kept hidden in the instep arch


Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

The poet-speaker tells the traveler that he has kept a drinking bowl (goblet) hidden in a hollow joint in the stem of a cedar tree growing by the side of the brook. This is a broken goblet that the speaker has stolen from the children’s playhouse. It is like the Holy Grail. This goblet has been kept under the influence of a spell so that no wrong or undeserving person may find it out, and be saved by drinking from it. Pointing to the brook and the water contained in it, the poet directs the traveler to drink from it with the help of that broken goblet and to get rid of the confusion of life troubling him. The poet refers to the salvation that can be achieved by going back to the source of spiritual strength that lies in the past.

Critical Appreciation

‘Directive’ is one of the most thoughtful and moving poems by Robert Frost. It is, in fact, according to Randall Jarrell (read Jarrell’s poetry):

One of the strangest and most characteristic, most dismaying, and most gratifying poems that any poet has ever written

The poem reveals Frost’s love of New England and his regret over its dismal present. He has nostalgia for the remote past of this region and directs the reader to find salvation and comfort in the spiritual strength characterizing that past. He draws our attention towards the original source of life and culture in present-day New England or the quagmire nature of human existence at the present and seeks a change for the better by reverting to the undefiled life in the past. The poem contains a directive to the traveler about how to get back to that source, and drink the invigorating water found there, so that he may get rid of the confusion of the present life around him.

The emptiness, desolation, and confusion prevailing in modern life have been nicely recaptured by Frost in the poem. He refers to the desertion of homely life and agricultural activities in New England, and to the loss of social and moral values. He points to a house ‘that is no more a house’, upon a farm ‘that is no more a farm’, in a town ‘that is no more a town’. He talks of the holes and dents made in the road that leads back to that house, which is a symbol of the difficulties coming in the way of the search for, or travel to, the source from where our modern life has flowed out.

The playhouse for children, and the deserted house of the grown-ups, and the brook which was the source of water supply to the house, lie at the end of the road on which someone else has walked in the past before the traveler and on which the traveler is going at present. This road may lead back to the point in the historical past where one may be able to get rid of all the confusion of modern life.

The poem is, thus, a directive or an injunction guiding the traveler back to the source. The source lies in the brook near the spring of a mountain. The poet directs the traveler to drink from this brook in a Grail-like goblet belonging to the children’s playhouse. He seems to be exhorting us to regain the state of childlike purity and innocence and avoid the confusion characterizing the life of the grown-ups in the present world. He wants us to go back ‘in a time made simple by the loss/of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off/Like graveyard sculpture in the weather.’

Similar to most of Frost’s poems, Directive’ contains a double layer of meaning. It appears to express a simple view about life in New England, but it also deals with human existence in general. It is both a narrative and an exhortation to us to return to the source, despite all difficulties lying in the way.

Dharmender Kumar Poetry Expert
Dharmender is a writer by passion, and a lawyer by profession. He has has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, and Mass Communication from Bhartiya Vidhya Bhavan, Delhi, as well as holding a law degree. Dharmender is awesomely passionate about Indian and English literature.

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