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Robert Frost's "Directive" — Theme, Summary and Analysis

Robert Frost's "Directive" is, in my opinion, an utter masterpiece and one of the very best poems in the English language. But what is the poem about? If it has a deeper meaning, what is that meaning? What is the poem's central theme, or message? I am going to propose that the poem, like a number of Frost's poems, has both a "surface" and "depths," like those of a deep mountain lake.

Please keep in mind that my analysis of the poem is not necessarily the "correct" one. Only Robert Frost knew exactly what he meant, and he is no longer with us. When asked to explain one of his poems, Frost asked rhetorically, "In less good words?" Frost did not care to explain his poems in prose. So the best we can do, probably, is read the poem and see where it leads us. And this is where the poem led me ...


I believe the poem has two themes. The first is a "surface" theme, a return to Frost's childhood, or perhaps to an imaginary speaker's childhood. We do not "know" if the speaker is Frost himself, or someone similar to Frost, or someone unlike Frost. I suspect the speaker is Frost himself, but cannot prove it. The second theme, in my opinion, is "deeper" or metaphorical: a return to the speaker's childhood religion, to find something higher and better. 


I believe this bleak masterpiece is primarily about a man's return to the darkness of his childhood religion, Christianity. In particular, a Calvinistic version of Christianity that incorporates the horrifying dogma of predestination. Christian predestination posits that an all-knowing, all-powerful God predestined some human beings to be "saved" and others to be damned. According to the Bible its God determines each person's eternal destiny before he/she is born, which seems terribly unfair if that destiny is to suffer forever! In my line-by-line analysis of the poem, I will explain how I came to the conclusion that Robert Frost rejected what the Bible says about predestination.

by Michael R. Burch

Line-by-Line Analysis

by Robert Frost

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,

This journey backward in time begins in a cemetery with deteriorating "graveyard marble sculpture." We know something momentous is involved by the phrase "all this now too much for us." Here the "loss of detail" informs us that memories are imperfect, that we no longer see things exactly as they were. The past has been "made simple" by the loss of detail, so that we only remember the "bigger picture," as it were.

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 surrounding landscape has changed: houses, farms and an entire town have vanished with the years. The house, farm and town are still present in one way (memory) but not in another (reality).

The road there, if you'll let a guide direct you
Who only has at heart your getting lost,

The guide who "only has at heart your getting lost" is the endlessly strange "savior" of the gospels, who was able to save the thief on the cross with a nod of his head, but for some inexplicable reason declined to nod his head at everyone. This guide's desire to get people lost will be explained by the speaker, in due course, more explicitly.

May seem as if it should have been a quarry –
Great monolithic knees the former town
Long since gave up pretense of keeping covered.

A quarry is used to extract rock, which can then be used to create foundations and buildings. In the New Testament, both Jesus and his foremost apostle, Peter, were called "rocks." According to the New Testament, Jesus told Peter, whose name in Greek ("Petros") means "rock," that Peter would be the "rock" on which he would build his church. A town might literally be fashioned out of rock, while spiritually being based on the "rock" of faith and church. But let's keep in mind that the speaker tells us "it may seem as if it should have been a quarry." So perhaps what appears to be a quarry is not really a source of rock, after all. One prays one one's knees, so is Frost suggesting that his former town had given up any pretense of covering what it was praying for: i.e., salvation of the "chosen few" at the expense of the rest of the world?

And there's a story in a book about it:

"And there's a story in a book about it" refers to the Bible. Here, I believe Frost is confirming that the poem's story relates to the Bible. "It" is the quarry, the source or pretended source of rock. So this seems to mean, "There is a story in the Bible about the source of faith, church and/or apostleship."

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.

When Frost says "You must not mind a certain coolness from him / Still said to haunt this side of Panther Mountain," I take him to be speaking about Jesus Christ, who of course never speaks personally to the children who pray so earnestly to him. And of course "haunt" is what a spirit does; the Bible says its god is a spirit. Jesus was called the Lion of Judah, and a panther is an American lion, so metaphorically we have the Jesus of American Christianity. Frost's Christ, who predestines human beings to hell, is enormously, glacially cold.

Nor need you mind the serial ordeal
Of being watched from forty cellar holes
As if by eye pairs out of forty firkins.

The number forty is a "biblical" number: it rained forty days and nights at the time of Noah's flood. Jesus spent forty days and forty nights in the desert, fasting and being tempted by Satan. Cellar holes are suggestive of hell, which was underground according to the Bible. That would make the eyes those of people or demons in hell. A firkin is a wooden cask, which sounds like an ark. The Bible says that while Jesus's body lay in the grave, his spirit preached, in hell, to the souls from the time of Noah when great sinfulness led to the Great Flood. So I take Frost to be saying that the children of his poem were caught between a rock (the glacially cold Christ) and a hard place (hell).

As for the woods' excitement over you
That sends light rustle rushes to their leaves,
Charge that to upstart inexperience.

Here, the woods may represent the natural world, which is young and "inexperienced" compared to the purported infinite "experience" of the Bible's Creator. Or Frost might mean that children find pleasure in the woods when they are not being taught about damnation and hell.

Where were they all not twenty years ago?
They think too much of having shaded out
A few old pecker-fretted apple trees.

We are all aware of the story of the Garden of Eden and "forbidden fruit" symbolic of sin, which is commonly said by Christians to have been an apple. Here, it may be that Frost is saying that for a time the natural world and its excitements "shaded out" thoughts of sin—perhaps of "sin" that is sexual in nature due to "pecker-fretted." If so, the "shading" seems to have been only temporary.

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.

Reaping and harvesting grain—"bringing in the sheaves"—is a staple image and metaphor of Christianity. Perhaps after a struggle with sexual "sin," the speaker felt "saved" for a season. Perhaps a family member or pastor slightly ahead of the speaker purported to lead him to "salvation." Perhaps there was a time that the speaker was on the same "road home" to heaven as the people around him.

The height of the adventure is the height
Of country where two village cultures faded
Into each other. Both of them are lost.

Here, I think "lost" is a key word. The two cultures may be the Christian culture of abstinence from sex until marriage, while the natural culture is to "do what comes naturally." In the end, both cultures are "lost," perhaps in the Christian sense of a person being "unsaved" and thus damned. Or perhaps the speaker simply gave up on both cultures.

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.

I believe "put a sign up CLOSED to all but me" refers to the Christian idea that only the "chosen few" will be saved. This is an extraordinarily heavy burden for a child to bear, because most people who have lived and died did not believe in Jesus Christ. So Christian "salvation" is very much like closing off all hope to most of the world, in order to be saved oneself.

Then make yourself at home. The only field
Now left's no bigger than a harness gall.

The Bible says the path to salvation is narrow, and that only a few people (the chosen few) will find it. Again, this is a very frightening prospect for a child, especially an empathetic child.

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

The "children's house of make believe" is their childhood faith in the enormously cold Christ who saves only the "chosen few" and thus lets everyone else be damned.

Some shattered dishes underneath a pine,
The playthings in the playhouse of the children.

The shattered dishes may be shattered communion plates and glasses, shattered illusions, the loss of faith, etc.

Weep for what little things could make them glad.

For me, this is one of the most touching lines in the English language. Despite all the heavy burdens their religion placed on them, there were "little things" that made the children glad, from time to time.

Then for the house that is no more a house,
But only a belilaced cellar hole,
Now slowly closing like a dent in dough.

The children's "destination" and "destiny" has become a "cellar hole," or hell.

This was no playhouse but a house in earnest.

The children were very earnest in their beliefs. Faith was no game for them. They took "hell" and "salvation" very seriously. Although what they were taught was make believe, it seemed very real to them.

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.

Frost called himself an "Old Testament Christian," so the "source" may well be the original Bible (the Hebrew Bible). This source was "too lofty" to rage, and thus much higher and more original than the abandoned religion. Because the Hebrew prophets never mentioned a "hell" or suffering after death, but said that everyone would be saved together in the end, perhaps the "higher source" is universalism.

(We know the valley streams that when aroused
Will leave their tatters hung on barb and thorn.)

The "aroused" streams below the "lofty" original source leave tatters on barb and thorn (the crucifixion).

I have kept hidden in the instep arch
Of an old cedar at the waterside

The original Jerusalem temple, built by King Solomon, was fashioned from the cedars of Lebanon.

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.

The Holy Grail is the ultimate article of Christian faith. The "broken drinking goblet like the Grail" is the Christian gospel, which is hidden from the "wrong ones" so they "can't find it," according to Saint Mark. The passage in question is about the horrendous doctrine of predestination: an all-knowing, all-powerful God created some human beings to be "glorified" and others to be damned, with their fates being determined and sealed before they were given life. Nothing could be more unfair, more unjust, unless everyone is saved in the end. This is the passage (Mark 4:10-12) that Frost is citing:

[10] And when he [Jesus] was alone, those who were about him with the twelve asked him concerning the parables. [11] And he said to them, "To you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside everything is in parables; [12] so that they may indeed see but not perceive, and may indeed hear but not understand; lest they should turn again, and be forgiven."

(I stole the goblet from the children's playhouse.)
Here are your waters and your watering place.
Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.

Frost says that he stole the goblet. His conclusion, as I apprehend him, is that one can only find himself by losing this terrible gospel and returning to the original source to become "whole again beyond confusion." My guess is that Frost found something higher and better in the universalism of ancient Hebrew prophets like Ezekiel. I wish Christian parents and pastors would read this poem and try to understand why the "good news" that Jesus saves only the "chosen few" is not good news at all, and is bound to terrify any empathetic child who buys into it.

Robert Frost Quotations

"Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, ‘grace' metaphors, and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another ... Unless you are at home in the metaphor, unless you have had your proper poetical education in the metaphor, you are not safe anywhere."

Robert Frost Bio

Robert Lee Frost was born on March 26, 1874, in San Francisco. He was named after the famous Civil War general Robert E. Lee.

After Frost's father died nearly penniless in 1885, the family moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts.

Frost wrote his first published poem, "My Butterfly," while in high school around age 17. The poem was published in 1894, when Frost was 20, by the New York Independent.

Frost married Elinor Miriam White, his classmate and co-valedictorian at Lawrence High School, in 1895.

Over the next seven years Frost succeeded in having only thirteen more poems published. During this time, Frost sporadically attended Dartmouth and Harvard but never earned a college degree. He earned a living teaching school and, later, farming in Derry, New Hampshire. Frost was not successful as a farmer, and finally gave it up in 1911 at age 37.

In 1912, at age 38, discouraged by constant rejection of his work, Frost moved his family to England, where he could "write and be poor without further scandal in the family." In England, Frost found the professional esteem denied him in his native country. There he formed relationships with highly-regarded writers like Ezra Pound, Edward Thomas and T. E. Hulme.

Continuing to write about New England while living in Old England, Frost had two books published: A Boy's Will and North of Boston. These books established his reputation so that his return to the United States in 1915 was as a celebrated literary figure. 

Frost, initially rejected by his own country, ended up winning four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature 31 times. He is generally considered to be one of the greatest English language poets of modern times, along with major poets like Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, Emily Dickinson, T. S. Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Wallace Stevens, Walt Whitman, and William Butler Yeats.

In 1961 at the age of 86, Robert Frost read his poem "The Gift Outright" at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy.

Frost died on January 29, 1963 at age 88. His gravestone's epitaph was taken from one of his poems: "I had a lover's quarrel with the world."

Today Frost is remembered especially for poems like "The Road Not Taken," "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," "Acquainted with the Night," "To Earthward," "Birches," "The Witch of Coös," "Home Burial," "A Servant to Servants," "Directive," "Neither Out Too Far Nor In Too Deep," "Provide, Provide," "After Apple Picking," "Mending Wall," "The Most of It," "An Old Man's Winter Night," "Spring Pools," "The Lovely Shall Be Choosers," "Design," and "Desert Places."

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