Robert Frost’s “Directive” guides you toward the ruins of a simpler, truer time
By Rebecca Kaiser Gibson
Whenever I’m asked to name a “favorite poem,” my response is noncommittal — “Oh, it’s one I read yesterday.” But I do have a favorite. My hesitation to reveal what moves me is part of why Robert Frost’s “Directive” appealed to me in the first place. I was in graduate school for poetry at Boston University when I encountered it. Did I even hear what our teacher, Robert Pinsky, was saying about the craft of the piece? Or did I just sense in Frost a kindred speaker reaching out to me — endorsing, in his gruffly self-confident yet slightly defensive voice, priorities I understood?
From its very title, “Directive,” the poem is assertive. I was not. My habitual stance was a secret, if annoyed, retreat. My own poetry was quiet, full of lyrical suggestion at best, and obscure reference at worst, never a command. [Read the poem here.] The first words of the first two lines of “Directive” are imperatives: “Back!” “Back!”
Back out of all this now too much for us, Back in a time made simple by the loss
There is no dilly-dallying, no second-guessing, and already I had confidence in the trustworthiness of the speaker. As the poem moves forward down the page, and back in time, the imperatives continue: “Make yourself up a cheering song.… ” “Pull in your ladder road behind you.…” “Put a sign up CLOSED to all but me.” “Then make yourself at home.” And in the miraculous final line, yet another command. After all, the title is “Directive” — both an order issued by an authority and a suggestion from a guide. The commands themselves, especially when I began to understand where the guide was leading me, were reassuring in their self-confidence.
Long before this globally shared time of pandemic apprehension, I felt “all this now too much for” me, the pressure to integrate into and thrive in society, or at least pretend to. We’ve been encouraged to participate in the frenzied amassing of goods, accolades, attention, books, clothing, ideas, vacations. And even during the Covid-19 pandemic — bombarded by suggested activities, cocktail-hour Zooms, self-help sites, online orders, and Prime deliveries — our anxieties are continuously ratcheted up by the choices apparently available to, or tantalizingly withheld from, us.
And here is Frost, world-renowned poet, having accomplished what I was supposed to achieve, harkening back in this poem, to a value more important.
Frost, or the speaker of the poem, pinpoints an imaginary spot on a map of time, then follows the ripples out. Simultaneously, he balances the specificity of the location he’s backing us up to with the reality that it no longer remains intact:
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
In these three lines I imagined both the being and the not-being of that house, that farm, that town. I sensed simultaneously what was, how it now isn’t, and my own nostalgia for the loss.
Much of what I initially appreciated about this poem was the deft balance Frost achieves between inviting and forbidding, between folksy and prophetic.
For example, the line
There is a road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you
sounds like an offer to show you the way. Frost will lead you himself.
But then he reveals that the guide “only has at heart your getting lost.”
The next set of lines present a series of unwelcoming landmarks. The ledges and the mountain ridges show “the chisel work of an enormous Glacier,” a capitalized presence that is further anthropomorphized as one “That braced his feet against the Arctic Pole” — an astonishing rendering of the Ice Age glaciers covering New England.
Frost goes on to describe overgrown cellar holes, a mythological-feeling “forty” of them, that seem to stare out, filled no doubt by reflective water. The speaker cajoles:
Nor need you mind the serial ordeal Of being watched from forty cellar holes As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins
(A firkin is a small barrel.) Lower down, Frost again holds in precarious balance a “cheering song,” but one sung precisely because one was feeling less than cheery. It is a song about how
Someone’s road home from work this once was Who may be just ahead of you on foot
The journey “home” remains fraught with tension between invitation and exclusion, guiding one deep into a place where the old worker may still be walking or even riding in a wagon, “creaking with a buggy load of grain.”
Lured into a daguerreotype of the shaggy-bearded New England farmer, a fellow, if former, solo traveler, I heard the weary workhorse clip-clopping down a summer lane, the mild buzzing of insects, maybe even a hermit thrush in the late afternoon woods.
Suddenly the intention of the guide becomes more direct:
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.
Goodness, I thought, can you say that? Can you shut the door on “all but me”? But wait, the guide “only has at heart [my] getting lost.” It’s of a piece with all the injunctions that one can only discover “the way” by first losing one’s way. I don’t remember if I thought about, or simply understood, how often I’d taken that route. How many times I simply set out in a place foreign to me, following my own inclinations, steep roads up to unseen destinations, long curvy shorelines, oblivious to the tide.
I think back to when I was twelve and used to walk several miles to Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., just to take off on trails I’d never traversed. I would disappear for hours, oblivious to possible dangers. Then back, back to that summer when I was about five, and ill with what was probably a slight fever. I rose from my sickbed, with its multicolored quilt squares, and wandered out into the garden in my white summer nightgown. The grasses were as tall as I was, the bees by my head were my guardians, the sun and the soft sand underfoot were my domain. It was a time when time wasn’t. And it in some deep way sustained me. I had pulled up the ladder, and closed the space to all but me.
The voice now shifts to the slightly detached, even dismissive, voice of a knowing adult observing the innocence of children:
Weep for what little things could make them glad
In other words, those “little things” we adults don’t find important. The self-protective distancing from personal disclosure by the speaker resonated with my own grad-school pretentions of sophisticated nonchalance.
But then, suddenly, comes the intense revelation of the poem:
This is no playhouse but a house in earnest. Your destination and your destiny’s A brook that was the water of the house,
Your destination — the intended end-point of your journey — and the end-point that was destined for you, are coequal, and lead back to childhood clarities. I realize that my experience wandering in that garden was my sustaining reality. But it’s not just the wisdom of the philosophy contained in the poem, but the welcoming and the shutting out, all accomplished in mostly casual-sounding lines, that make the poem so alluring, so alive, to me.
The poem goes through several more turns of tone, including Frost’s first shift to “we.”
(We know the valley streams that when aroused Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn)
By assuming a collective knowledge of the way flooded streams do in fact leave debris, Frost adroitly includes us in a kind of shared intimacy.
Directly after that, the poet uses “I” for the first time:
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….
And this “I” is not only private and particular, but exclusive, barring the “wrong ones,” even from salvation. In my own growing up, my habit always was to keep silent unless I knew I was speaking with a kindred soul. And that was rare. Seeing my own behavior, possibly, as an intentional guarding of something sacred was a revelation.
Just as suddenly, and just as dynamically, the poem ends. The two last lines proclaim a kind of redemption. The penultimate line —
Here are your waters and your watering place.
— affirms that the place from which you gain sustenance and to which you give sustenance are the same.
Then comes the final exhortation, which was, and is, thrilling to me:
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.
Though I can’t know the inner landscape Frost was exploring in this piece, for me it is the idea that our childhoods are profoundly private and filled with grace. That we have been lured forward, away from ourselves by “all this now too much for us.” And that we, emphatically, might drink from the unadulterated clarity of our source. ☾
REBECCA KAISER GIBSON is a poet living in Marlborough, New Hampshire. She is the author of the forthcoming Girl as Birch (Bauhan, 2021), OPINEL (Bauhan, 2015), and two chapbooks, Admit the Peacock and Inside the Exhibition. She is the recipient of fellowships from MacDowell and the Heinrich Böll Cottage (Ireland), as well as the 2008 Fellowship in Poetry from the Massachusetts Cultural Council. In 2011 she was selected as a Fulbright Scholar to teach poetry in Hyderabad, India. She is founder and director of a New Hampshire poetry reading series, The Loom, Poetry in Harrisville, and her poems have appeared in The Adroit Journal, Agni, Field, The Greensboro Review, Green Mountain Review, The Harvard Review, and other publications. She taught poetry at Tufts University for 23 years.
Lovely. Sharing a recommendation of a book by John Elder, Reading the Mountains of Home, guided by this poem: https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674748897
This is so deftly and beautifully done, first guiding us along the rutted and glacier-scraped path, and then making the connection between your own secret childhood garden and Frost’s “children’s house of make-believe.”