#38 “Directive” (Robert Frost)

Robert Frost’s “Directive” is shot through with what John Keats called “negative capability.” Keats, as we know, praised writers (and by implication readers) of poetry who were “capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” Keats’s great example was Shakespeare, though he was also obviously thinking of himself. (Keats specifically said that Coleridge lacked negative capability, though I think this is unfair to Coleridge’s best poetry.)

To Keats and Shakespeare and the Coleridge of “Kubla Khan” we can add Robert Frost as a great purveyor of negative capability. What better way to think about a poem called “Directive” where the speaker “only has at heart your getting lost?”

The title “Directive” suggests that the poem is going to lead somewhere, or tell us what to do – no matter what the speaker says about his reliability as a guide. But the directive turns out to be nothing you could actually accomplish in real life. (For one thing, try Google-Mapping “the height / Of country where two village cultures faded / Into each other.”) The journey that the speaker asks us to undertake is basically a guided dream. But it’s to a very specific setting. We must go to a specific imaginary place of the speaker’s choosing. This is not one of those “close your eyes and visualize a special place of your own” exercises. The speaker wants us to go somewhere particular that is very familiar to him, but alien to us.

And as always, the way to follow the speaker is just to imagine the landscape and artifacts in a completely literal way. He is talking about imaginary, but very literal trees. He is talking about literal artifacts and literal houses that used to be.

The landscape becomes magical, but not because it conceals some hidden meaning accessible only to people who are smart about poetry. It becomes magical because the places that we live and imagine in are always real, particular, concrete – indeed, ordinary – places that we fill with adventure. As Marianne Moore called poetry, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.”


13 responses to “#38 “Directive” (Robert Frost)

  1. This poem reminds me of a movie called “Tuck Everlasting.” It is about a family who lives in the forest and in that forest is a secret tree that pours out water into a well. It is a Fountain of youth water, if you will. The water keeps them young and no one else knows about them or the water. A girl stumbles across the family one day and falls in love with one of the sons and the secret is revealed to her. The water in the movie is as stated in the poem “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.” This also reminds me of my grandmother’s house. I can see every knick knack on the shelves and can still smell my grandmother’s house even though it has been 24 years since she passed away. I always felt safe there. The chairs we sat in late in the evenings to watch the moon and the stars. The bed right by the window, also perfect view of the moon and stars. The comfort of her home…pine trees out in the yard. Someone else lives there now. I wonder, do they sit outside and look at the stars at night too? Do they enjoy the pine trees? Do they feel the comfort of that place too? I will always feel that “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.” My grandmother made it special for me…a safe place. Maybe only I am the only one who can recall every detail exactly as it was. In my mind, it will always be that way.

  2. I wasn’t able to attend class last week, so I don’t have the benefit of the discussion that took place about this poem. Upon first glance, it appears that this poem is one of those “envision your Happy Place” poems, but it really isn’t. The place described in the poem is in the speaker’s imagination, and its actually quite depressing. Its almost as if the speaker acknowledges that when others let their mind wonder, and imagine a place that is all their own, it is generally a “happy” place. But his place, for whatever reason, is not. Its very gloomy, lonely, and depressing. It makes me wonder what might have happened in the speaker’s life that made him think of such a place.

  3. I immensely enjoy all of Robert Frost’s poems because he provides the reader with deep insight and wisdom into some of life’s toughest questions. He doesn’t give the answers in his poems, but he invites the reader to follow a poetic train of thought so that he or she will discover the answers on their own.. I noticed in some of the background information on Robert Frost that reading his poems is compared to reading “Tuesdays with Morrie.” I agree that there are strong similarities because both deal with an old man and life’s greatest lesson. However, Frost is not as transparent and resolved as Morrie in his explanations which brings me to the next intriguing quality I admire about Robert Frost’s poems and that is the mysteries and uncertainties that are often in his poetry. Professor Morris’s comment on negative capability sent me on a very enlightening research project.
    Professor Morris said, “The poem “Directive,” is shot through with what John Keats called “negative capability.” I discovered that negative capability is a fascinating concept which was difficult at first for a logical, black & white person like me to grasp. I learned that negative capability is being content and comfortable with uncertainties. I figured out the idea was initially hard for me to comprehend because since I was a child I was taught to keep asking why until I get the answer. Well, negative capability accepts the fact that life contains half knowledge and issues that can’t be resolved. Keats said that Shakespeare was the master of negative capability. After thinking about some of my favorite Shakespearean plays, I could see the constant uncertainties in Othello’s conflict with Desdemona, Romeo and Juliet’s conflict with each other, Hamlet’s conflict with himself, and King Lear’s conflict with his daughters. This idea is interesting to me because it leaves the imagination open to discover all sorts of possibilities and directions.
    Finally, I feel Frost chose to call the poem “Directive,” because it is an order to go to a place ( noun ), but he also describes the place so that one will know when he or she has arrived ( adjective ). Frost said, “Your destination and your destiny’s” and “Here are your waters and your watering place,” to let the reader know it is a place and here are the instructions how to get there. This poem is for the person who is weary of the treadmill of life going from Point A to Point B and back again in a chase after the almighty dollar or other worldly possessions. Frost invites the reader to lose his or her day to day agenda because only when you lose yourself can you really find yourself. When I read, “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,” I feel he’s saying when you lose yourself then you will find all types of wondrous and delightful discoveries about yourself. I believe “Directive “ will lead one to serendipity. Serendipity is the facility of making happy chance discoveries. ( Horace Walpole, 1743).

  4. In this poem i think the place is a special place for the author. This is a place where he can find comfort and feel at home. Many people have these kinds of places. Mine is at my grandma’s house out in the country in her backyard or front porch. When i go there my mind is at ease and all i can do is relax and think. When i am there it feels like no one can bother me and i am in my own world. In the poem this person feels like this at their particular place. I love to get away from the citu life and go there sometimes. This place was extremely important to the author and must have existed because he wrote about it. I like this poem because it is easy to understand and we can all relate to it.

  5. andreamcginley

    Children have such a vivid imagination, which can partially be attributed to the innocence that they are born with. But this imagination is sometimes lost in the world of tragedies and inhumanities of life. In Robert Frost’s poem “Directives” it an explination of this innocence. The title would lead one to believe that it would take us somewhere or lead us to a place of wonders. However to me it is more saying that the only way we can get to this peaceful place is if we use our inner child and believe that we can reach this utopia. In the opening lines of the poem shouts out a stab at the people of today. We use the land to benefit us and when we are no longer to get anything from it we throw it away and forget about it. Today human have become selfish and are always thinking about them and always in a forward motion. The poem also poses the question that only the worthy are able to reach this most wonderful place in the lines “A broken drinking goblet like the Grail Under a spell so the wrong ones can’t find it”. This line is probably my favorite out of the entire poem because it just reminds me that those who believe in something so unrealistic in this time does deserve to have serenity. It is like children with Santa Claus, they try to be on their best behavior to recieve the promise of gifts from this magical being. For people to give up some part of sanity to really believe that a place so wonderful could exist would be worthy of actually reaping the benefits.

  6. I was first introduced to Robert Frost in high school when we were required to read and analyze “The Road Not Taken”, and he as a poet has stayed in my memory since then. I greatly enjoyed reading “Directive” and similar to “The Road Not Taken” it talks about sort of a direction a person chooses to take. The part where the guide is mentioned is where I find this similarity because it poses a question to the reader: “what will you ever find unless you are willing to get lost”? Which road should you take? Who should you trust? The description of an abandoned landscape almost makes me feel like the speaker is longing for someone to come into the scene and make this place come alive again like it was …”twenty years ago”… The speaker wants the wilderness to creep back into this imaginary place. The lines:
    “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.”

    …again suggest that you cannot find yourself unless you are willing to get lost, and once you have found yourself and know exactly who you are, you can then let only those who are closest to you into your life. Hence, “Directive” is like an instruction to the way a person loses and finds themselves, and the expectation of what they are to do next.

  7. spontaneous12

    Robert Frost gave an indication that there was going to be some kind of an order with his title. After rereading the poem, his imagination takes us far beyond 21st century to a place where orders are given on farms. Any type of order on a farm usually deals with families who have to manage the farm early in the morning. Men are typically the leaders in telling the children and the wife what to do. Women were ordered to cook for the family, care for the kids and keep clean the household. We go beyond what is seen in the busy cities of the U.S into a time zone where “towns are no longer towns.” When I think about a town no longer being the same, I think about Old Western Civilization when wars would carry on and big riots would be the talk of the town. Men spent a lot of their time in the whiskey bars and less time at home. Those towns no longer exist as much in this day in age. Robert Frost also directs us to warnings about who is watching us in this mysterious imagination. We never know when someone is watching us. That person could be a director of some sort. Possibly even given directions to watch us and see how we react to certain situations. Then he tells us to make up a song. It reminds me of how people used to sing on their way home to music trying to begin to cope with a long work day. Over time, directives became more directives at work to have to deal with mentally and a song was meant to forget why you were upset at an order a boss has continued to give you over the years. He refers to the ride home as “once was” because those memories of the good times while you sang your favorite hit are gone and lost. Who really knows how you felt while listening to that song and how you were deeply moved by the music. A ride home could simply be a quiet cogitation of “what was” and glimpses of what is to come. The playhouses as little kids were the games that children played through their young I.Q’s. Those games of “make believe” were the beginnings of the creation of great careers and great inventions. Children are able to imagine and they are bosses with their own private employees (other little kids) telling other kids what to do and how to act. If you don’t participate, you better believe that there was going to be some conflict with the boss of the children. That is typically how kids start to try and fit in because bosses as little kids turn out to be some of our bullies. The last stanza reads “Here are your waters and your watering place. Drink and be whole again beyond confusion. In other words, if you have an imagination to let poetry guide you to the orders the words give you on the paper to imagine, then you are at a fruitful place ready to comprehend. You are also a believer and a student of poetry as well as other literary work. On the contrary, if you are not able to take the poem as a work of art wrote through a mind endured by different time zones and thinking angles, then you won’t be at a watering place or at a place of understanding.

  8. After reading this poem I thought a lot about my last week in California this summer. I was visiting for a wedding but decided to go hiking in the mountains a few days before. My cousin and I parked at the bottom of the mountain and just walked into the woods. We decided to walk up the mountain along the river streams so we knew which way to go back down. After a few hours of hiking we decided to relax by the water. In the distance I could see a white chapel and we tried getting to it, completely leaving the stream. We knew we were lost but had plenty of time to get back down before dark. On our way up we ended up at Follows Camp. When we got there it was completely silent but beautiful. There was no way any park rangers were going to find us so we decided to explore and for hours we walked in and out of every building and old house and enjoyed the beautiful views. The houses were no longer houses like the poem states. And I couldn’t get over the fact that this place was home to many people. Secluded from the rest of society but it had everything you needed to not want to leave. Come to find out the place is over 130 years old and it still felt so alive when I was there. The whole time it felt like there was something with us in the air, and the rare breezes that came through made it come even more alive. I wish I could have experienced it when it was still hospitable. This experience made me realize a lot about myself and really tested me physically and mentally. We had no GPS, map, and our phones and everything stayed in the car. Like mentioned above, what will you ever find unless you are willing to get lost? Who should you trust? In this case I had to trust myself to get myself up and down, after twelve hours of hiking and being lost with no water in 100+ weather you feel pretty beat but you learn a lot about yourself. And the things you see and experience are ones you will never forget. I really enjoyed being lost, and fear never once cam to mind because I was so caught up with the beautiful sights at Follows Camp.

  9. Throughout my whole life, my parents have always brought up stories about their past and the way things used to be in “the good ol’ days.” I feel like this is the sort of conversation the speaker is trying to have with his or her audience. He is telling them to look back at what used to be, to slow down and smell the flowers if you will. But in today’s fast-paced world pausing for even a moment can set you back tremendously. Things are harder to accomplish now than they were “back then. If you want a descent-paying job, odds are you will have to get a degree first, whereas 50 years ago, some jobs didn’t even require a high school diploma. Likewise, price inflation has skyrocketed while pay has hardly increased to make these ends meet. I feel sorry for the next generation, who will have even less time to enjoy life. Although I’m sure we would all love to take the time out of our day to think about the simpler things in life, as this speaker did, it is almost like beating a dead horse, it simply cannot happen.

  10. kursteilnehmur

    The wonderful thing about time is it is always moving. Always changing, never stopping to pause for an instance or rewinding to an occasion that all people can enjoy. It will always be a constant that we can rely on. Unless some catastrophic event took place and skewed the view of time. For the purpose of this poem I think we can rely on time to be flowing in a constant forward motion. I find comfort in the knowledge that life is always changing, adapting and growing. The world seems to shift in many different ways every day of our lives, even though the changes may be minute. It is somewhat sad that the world will cast that which is outdated into oblivion. Many have spent their whole life trying to keep up with everything that changes around them, but I cannot say if this is a worthy pursuit. The main idea this poem conveyed to me was of the importance to have a direction that you wish to follow in life and wholeheartedly follow that goal to the bitter end. It is better to have a direction to follow than to wander mindlessly through life searching for meaning that may never quite be visible. A following idea that I picked up on was the perception of beauty. The poem seemed to cast a favorable light on the old run down residence. It was almost quaint in some ways, and yet the idea of a directive is lingering in the distance when the poem addresses the description of the property. Overall the poem was quite appealing to either one searching for meaning, and to one looking for something more literal.

  11. “Directive” is just more proof of the genius that is Robert Frost. The detail of the whole poem and how it has a very defining and real feeling to it is very important, yet the direction is meaningless and ends nowhere. This poem has a very negative feeling to it that might not be for everyone. The poem does seem to show you a very dark and dull perspective of human imagination, and to me it’s like a warning of why we are unhappy. Everyone always talks about their happy place, well this seems like the total opposite. It reminds me of the scene in Happy Gilmore when he sees all the dark thoughts happening before him. Frost seems to show this same type of image, but beautifully in many lines of poetry. I personally like to look at the more positive things, but hey everything can’t be like that!

  12. The poem begins with “back out of all this now too much for us”. In the first line this negative capability is evident to me. Although the speaker tells his audience to back away because it has become too lofty an undertaking for ourselves; he immediately proceeds to speak of a place, seen from a distance or in a haze, without the meddling of details. The following lines seemed funny to me “there is a house that is no more a house”. there is a house and is the house no longer existing or is he merely not completing a comparison? Saying the house is no more a house than another house, also this is a great example of the negative capability. Now we move to Frost’s opinion on human nature. A nature whose true goal is not the benefit of fellow humans in fact it is the opposite; a mission to make you lost. On this road along this town there was a ghostly passerby, who in his will to defy nature left this passage scarred. Now on your way along this road hum a song and think of the people who once trekked this path, Yet these same people may be just up along the road. Now there is two reasons these people are just up the road they are either really slow or people still find themselves lost enough to find themselves on this path. Another line i found funny is weep for what little things could make them glad” is it we should really weep for the fact that they had not enough or should we look within ourselves and wonder why would we weep for children being happy “the little thing in life”. Next we are transferred to place where we begin to see what the speaker saw all along. The house which was not a house transforms into “a house in earnest” we are at our destination a beautiful spring. This poem to me was definitely a trip through a dream like state within the mind of the author. He creates the parameters of what is seen and unseen what is real and unreal and to him they all blur together. He decides who is good and who is not. And we find confusion may also be a state of solace where one may find truth. This poem to me was much like a dream i have once had not in setting but in feeling. one where I felt time and distance where no longer a factor, they were one in the same.

  13. The “Directive” is about someone going out on a journey to a town that is no more. I like the idea of doing this because it is interesting to me to observe without restrictions how a certain people or community lived. The things they made or collected, the foods they ate, and the activities they did. I picture a remote area, mountainous in nature, that has a beautiful scenery. The idea of getting lost to find yourself is a powerful one. I think in order to know something you must lose it, or in order to appreciate it. I can think of many applications to this like if you have a pet you have lost for even a day. It can feel as if it has been missing for weeks and if you find it you are extremely grateful. The realization sets in that you can have things you love taken from you without biased. To lose yourself is to forget everything you know about yourself and to be content in doing so. The experience would be terrifying in real life, but in a fantasy it might be a relief. You could be anyone you wanted to be without any preconceptions of yourself.

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