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.”