Robert Frost's Prime Directive
PostedFebruary 21, 2009
"Directive" reads to me like the height of Frost's poetry, the poem he climbed toward for perhaps forty years. Imagery and tone both tell that he's taken this road before: until its last six lines, there's only one image in "Directive" that doesn't appear in, or bear on, some earlier Frost poem. The "children's house" is new; but the apple trees, small animals, and outcrop rock of "Directive" are vintage Frost, here distilled to their metaphorical essence. As his didactic title implies, Frost is familiar with what he's up to. But only here does he newly play guide to his own metaphors and, climbing back to his poetry's wellspring, openly bid a reader to drink at their height.
"Directive" doesn't demand more knowledge of Frost than itself. But the poem gains stature if read as climaxing both the high inclination of, say, "Birches," and the dark temptations of "Stopping by Woods." "Directive" both walks in toward self-exploration and, all but simultaneously, works itself up toward a theologically marginal grace. The poem is simple to get into. But to be worthy of its final ascent a reader must, by Frost's own example, learn to read the nature with which this poem surrounds him. Earlier Frost poems can teach a reader what to make of deceptively simple natural images, but "Directive" must first be read by submitting to its insistence on "getting lost." Finding-in-losing is the poem's crucial paradox, and unless a reader has been scared by his own desert places he may not be "lost enough" to be guided by Frost through this high-country quest. As it tests a reader's earned humanity, not just his book-learning, "Directive" is in its own way a "serial ordeal"; it can't be read, and wasn't written, as a young man's poem. I remember my own undergraduate distrust of its tones, as Sidney Cox first taught me Frost in that year when it climaxed Steeple Bush. I hadn't yet earned reading it. I still perhaps haven't. But now, at least, I know from the mountain poem in North of Boston, from the title poem of West-Running Brook (and the lesser piece in that book that involves "a broken drinking glass" beside a mountain spring), how much of Frost's writing life was committed to the poem that "Directive" would become. As I've grown older, it seems to me that one of the measures of "Directive" is how greatly Frost tried to make it come whole, how long it took him to discover the cumulative import of images he had always known.
"Directive" doesn't invite us to guess what human ordeals finally drove Frost to write it. Though his biography is full of serial possibilities, the poem asks only that we submit to discovering ourselves in its sense of our common experience. Against this world's temptations to seize the day, "Directive" bids us "back out of all this now too much for us." But Frost's strong stresses, roughened across that great iambic line, admit of no defeat. Precisely because he long knew that "the present / Is ... / Too present to imagine," Frost begins "Directive" with his familiar gambit of a strategic retreat. As if with Thoreau, John Muir, John the Baptist, or whatever guide has grown wise through days and nights in the wilderness, "Directive" shares with us the possibility of a long perspective on our own emotional history.
Perspective is what the first thirty-five lines of the poem are about, and Frost—in them—is up to his old delight of preparing us for wisdom. There's more ice than fire in these early images of extinction; they notably begin with that "graveyard marble" which suggests our inability to imagine much beyond death. But after its incantatory devastation of house-farm-town, "Directive" recovers our perspective by lending those close losses the context of geologic history. "Monolithic knees" might seem more native to Easter Island than Vermont; but they, like Panther Mountain's "enormous Glacier," lend scale to our mourning and personify those natural forces in whose universe we stand small. We may not know chapter and verse of this long story, but we begin to read ourselves as being part of its book. By Frost's directive, we find ourselves lost with laboring generations of men, exposed to those forty "eye pairs" which steal our courage from us. Unless we invent our own song in this strange land, as Frost requires, there's nothing "cheering" here. But just when our ordeal seems unbearable, Frost reminds us that beside the upstart trees we are comparatively experienced. By the time we climb line 36, we have, in fact, been initiated into the poem's strange lostness. Just as "two village cultures faded / Into each other," we become one with our guide in having lost the accouterments of our civilization. By his directive at this distance from our daily lives, we are mazed in primitive fears, in a nature we see signs of but can't read, in a history larger than our own.
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.
"Directive" turns on these lines, not least as they restate Frost's casual introduction of their crucial paradox. From here on in, "Directive" climbs on that strange "ladder road" by which we may find ourselves "at home." Frost's "harness gall" metaphor implies, perhaps, how wearing is the burden of paradox; it surely suggests how bitterly minimal our "destination" will be. But here, at least, lostness gives way to finding, the poem's perspective shortens to focus on those few residual symbols by which our humanity is (if barely) sustained. Frost's lines about the children's playthings are, I think, the most heart-rending in all his poetry. "Make believe" though their house may have been, it is also the house (of the farm and the town) in which we once vested belief. This "house in earnest" is now only a "belilaced cellar hole," as impersonal as a "dent in dough"; its shelter may be lost to us, but we find our hearts still in it. Newly children again, we with Frost "weep for what little things could make them glad."
Yet our tears now are more of empathy than of nostalgia; we weep more in tragedy than in terror. Like figures suddenly legendary, we find ourselves become worthy to drink from a "goblet like the Grail." Broken though that goblet is, by the history we too have been lost in, we learn in drinking from it both where we've been and where we've finally arrived. We learn, in fact, to read "Directive" again, to discover human directions in the natural world through which we've been guided. Until its climactic references to the Grail and to Saint Mark, "Directive" reads like an archeological field trip in Vermont (albeit without much compass). The poem's greatness continues to reside in how painfully native to us its least images seem. But as Frost's reference to Mark challenges our memory of the book in which "Directive" is rooted, the reference further guides us to read Frost's images as he would have them read. Frost long said that his poetry was chiefly metaphor, "talking about one thing in terms of another." Mark (4:11) is even more explicit: "Unto you it is given to know the mystery of the kingdom ... all these things are done in parables." After a night of dark talk, Mr. Frost once reassured me that verses eleven and twelve were his "Saint Mark gospel." (Whoever doubts Frost's salvational sense of metaphor could do worse than look up 4:12.)
"Directive" is, throughout, more metaphor than parable; Frost talks Christian in often secular terms. But its explicit biblical reference further directs us to the source of its chief thematic paradox (Luke 9:24): "For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: but whosoever will lose his life ... the same shall save it." Frost's sense of being "saved" is as marginal as subsistence farming in Vermont: to sustain one's values, beyond sure losses, depends on being guided by natural signs. Only after we're lost in reading "Directive," and have thus earned a right to its wisdom, do its signs come metaphorically clear. The "cedar" of "Directive," for instance, is natural to Frost's New England; only in the context of the poem's climax does it seem to have been seeded by the cedars of biblical Lebanon. "Barb and thorn" or "ladder road" are similarly metaphors-in-retrospect; they are images of spring floods and steepness before they imply Gethsemane or Jacob. "Directive" is thick with Frost's delight in providing a context that illuminates simple images as the metaphors he intends them to be. The poem is typically Frost in its clear surfaces and complex depths; it's unusual in specifically initiating a reader to what "the wrong ones can't find."
"Under a spell" of metaphor though its ultimate image is, "Directive" is finally a secular poem rooted in residual Christianity. Its biblical references don't, as they might in Stevens, argue for reformation; they don't, as they might in Eliot, invite us back to a church. They measure, instead, both our distance from full redemption and our imaginative thirst for those wellsprings that revive our spirit. Though "Directive" guides us perilously through humanity's common ordeal, its country is no wasteland, there is no chapel at its height. Frost's goblet is merely like the Grail; in drinking from it we are still only "near its source." As with the contrary wave in "West-Running Brook," Frost shapes "Directive" as a "tribute of the current to the source," to the Christian drama in which his metaphors are steeped. But Frost is also asking, as he often does, "what to make of a diminished thing." However diminished its symbols may be, Frost seems to imply, our hearts need not let go the value of Christianity's crucial paradox. Yet to imagine our own ordeals as part of a larger drama is not to cast ourselves as heroes; it is simply to realize our share in the human condition. What is heroic in "Directive" is its quiet acceptance of the role to which experience conditions us. Nothing in "Directive" has guided us to hope (whether for a Grail, Redemption, or hope itself); we began to climb without expectation, and end by quenching the unexpected thirst we've earned in sweating uphill. Reality has been our ordeal, and we drink what the poem finally offers us: clear water from a real spring. We are "beyond confusion" not least in this; we are wholly ourselves both in having wept for the children's playthings and in being gladdened by what we made-believe in drinking from their cup. Our imaginative thirst may only be momentarily satisfied, but the poem fulfills itself with a sacrament which redeems our experience by completing our perspective on it.
I read "Directive" as one of those few rare poems that are, by Frost's definitive hope, "a momentary stay against confusion." The margin of "a momentary stay" is the saving grace of "Directive" and, greatly, its theme. Whoever demands a more ample margin had better be guided up Billy Graham's public aisle; whoever can exist without metaphor had best forget Frost. But whomever "Directive" privately converts (Frost asks no less) can find his margin roughly extended in that strangely unknown Frost poem, "An Empty Threat":
Better defeat almost,
If seen clear,
Than life's victories of doubt
That need endless talk talk
To make them out.
Terribly though doubt assailed him, nowhere in his work is Frost defeated by it. Skeptically as a lot of poems talk, nowhere in them is doubt victorious. Nor is there any poem that argues "almost better defeat," whether seen clear or not. What must be seen clear is the poised sequence of those words I've just disordered. My misquote, "almost better defeat," is narrowly, but wholly and perfectly, different from "better defeat almost." The difference is as great as one man's life might be from another's; the distinction in order is, as Frost would have it, of the order of the distinction between prose and poetry. Defeat-almost was the ordeal of Frost's life; it is the narrow victory his major poems dramatize, and the human margin of their greatness. As it climbs to marginal redemption through a myth made local by image, through an ordeal heightened by metaphor, "Directive" is one of the greatest. It stays defeat by bettering being lost.
Copyright © by Philip Booth. Originally appeared in Master Poems of the English Language, edited by Oscar Williams (Pocket Books, 1966). Reprinted in Trying to Say it: Outlooks and Insights on How Poems Happen by Philip Booth (University of Michigan, 1996). Reprinted with permission of the Estate of Philip E. Booth.