The Eucharist and the Status of Religion in Frost’s “Directive”

In Robert Frost’s poem “Directive”, the answer to a question of absolution and religious peace can be found in the form of a journey, led by a poet guide. Frost wrote this poem when he was in his seventies, and while it harnesses many of the same images and tones of his previous works, “Directive” presents a wisdom and a certainty previously uncharted by the poet. While far from morose, this poem presents the Christian paradox and the ways in which man is distant from that which he worships. The Christian imagery and evocation of Eucharist are evident even to those not raised in the Catholic tradition, but the poem serves more as metaphor than parable. In contrast to Eliot, whose works were an invitation back to Church, Frost’s poem examines both humanity’s distance from absolution and the residual thirst for the revival of the spirit, the paradox of finding only in losing. The rituals of mourning and religion as guide are utilized, but they do not alone provide absolution or even solace. Here, the contrast of symbols for death and the senses of childhood present a guide who neither ironically jests nor resigns himself to the grave, but is rather a wizened traveler; a man staring at the sunset, reveling in its matter of fact magnificence.

From the start of the poem, the imagery and tone both prove that Frost did not take the road less travelled with his writing: until its last six lines, the only image in “Directive” that does not appear in, or bear on, some earlier Frost poem is that of the “children’s house”; the apple trees, small animals, and stone outcropping are vintage Frost curations, here distilled to their metaphorical essences. These are the writings of an aged man, who in his decades of finding lines and stories was able now to make it come whole, to discover the cumulative strength and comfort of images he had always known. The symbols for death are also consistent in the opening lines of the poem, and attain the same levels of sincerity, if not comfort. The “loss/ of detail,” and “graveyard marble,” which suggest mankind’s inability to imagine much beyond death, and the incantatory erasure of the house, the farm, and finally the town all present a Christian sense of loss. The following “Monolithic knees” and “enormous Glacier,” lend scale to the mourning and personify those natural wonders which make the experiences and plights of man infinitesimal. Guided by Frost, the religious right of man is lost among the laboring generations of men, exposed to those forty “eye pairs” which provide no answers, merely watch. But just when the ordeal becomes unbearable, the experiences of men are placed in contrast to the newborn trees, and the energy is renewed. The experience of the reader mimics that of mourning, first there is the fixation on the death, then rituals to abate the loss, the emotional toll of facing an end, and the peace of seeing the grand scale. Each invokes its own emotion but draws upon the wealth of lessons found in Biblical storytelling, itself a ritual on its own. But the reader has not yet discovered the answers, they are still lost in the personal trenches of becoming lost, awaiting the act of finding. Come line 36, the reader has become enveloped in the loss and is in turn working towards finding an answer. Just as “two village cultures faded / Into each other,” all accessory adorned by civilization has been left behind by reader and guide alike. All that has been read thus far indicate a decay or a loss of life, a destruction of scale, yet the poem provides no comfort or solution. The human in its ordeal is too far from the gates of heaven to merit their mention. The poem employs a common practice seen in religious works of first moving in towards self reflection before moving up towards a theological understanding. This idea of marginal grace and the paradox of finding in losing come to the poem’s forefront with 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.” Here loss gives way to finding, regardless of the burden of the paradox or the bitterly inconsequential destination, the poem’s perspective shortens to focus on those few residual symbols in which humanity is sustained. The attention on the uncertainty of death is shifted to the sincerity of youth, “Make believe” though their house may have been, it is also the house in which belief could be entirely vested, a glory yet unseen in this derelict scenescape. This “house in earnest” is now only a “belilaced cellar hole,” as impersonal as a “dent in dough”; its shelter may be lost, but humanity collectively agrees to place faith in it nonetheless. Newly children again, Frost and his wards, “weep for what little things could make them glad.” With faith invested, the world regains a hint of its former solidity, and those who are lost are becoming established. Here “Directive” focuses solely on the ritual of being found, and the act of Eucharist and absolution is realized. Existing in the purgatory-like state of being lost but also established in the child-like imagery, the reader is only now able to drink from the “goblet like the Grail.” Broken though that goblet is, from a tradition seemingly long lost, in drinking from it both where humanity has been and where it has arrived are brought to light. It is uncovered in, “Here are your waters and your watering place.” that humanity’s directions can be found in the natural world through which they’ve just been guided. Absolution was always in reach of man, if only he were willing to search for it. The poem’s greatness continues to reside in how painfully native to the reader its least images, and in turn its solutions, seem. “Directive” is, throughout, more metaphor than parable; Frost’s examination of Christianity exists almost exclusively in secular terms. The explicit biblical references further allude to its chief thematic paradox from 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 marginal, incomparable to the grand notions of fellow writers such as Eliot: to sustain one’s values, beyond sure losses, depends on being guided by natural signs. In this clear but profound claim lies the poem’s sincerity, a mockery would not permit such simple means to grant salvation. The paradox of being found by losing oneself is a staple of Christianity but far from black and white in its teachings, the lessons learned, in all their confounding subtlety, are not the mark of a man laughing at the concept of deities, but rather a recognition of a chance at peace for those uncertain or left behind, a light in the shaded wood. These are the writings of a man who has seen much, rather than one who explains all. “Directive” has the rare ability to have a context that later illuminates simple images as their intended metaphors. Frost explicitly avoids overwhelming the text with symbols or allusions, it is only after reading the poem in its entirety that the reader earns a right to its wisdom and the signs become metaphorically clear. The poem is a staple Frost piece in its clear surfaces and complex depths; it’s unusual in specifically initiating a reader to what “the wrong ones can’t find.” The “cedar” for instance, is natural to Frost’s New England, but only in the context of the poem’s climax does it spring forth as a cedar of biblical Lebanon. The “Barb and thorn” or “ladder road” are similarly metaphors only in retrospect; they are images of spring floods and natural steppes before they imply the stories of Gethsemane or Jacob. The iambic meter that overwhelms the sound of each line only becomes a chanted prayer after the poem’s conclusion. The reader is privy to new depths only after taking in the truths provided by the guide. The residual sense of Christianity measures both the distance between humanity and full redemption in a way that is not cynical yet still offers no overwhelming sense of hope. Though “Directive” displays the mourning of humanity’s common ordeal, its country is no wasteland, there is no chapel at its height. Frost’s goblet is only like the Grail; those who drink from it are still only “near its source.” The Christian drama, adamantly implied by the poet and in which the metaphors are steeped, establishes the message that mankind need not let go the value of Christianity’s crucial paradox, however diminished its symbols may be to the casual reader. Yet to imagine these ordeals as part of a larger drama is not to cast man as hero; it is simply to realize each reader’s share in the human condition. What is heroic in “Directive” is its quiet acceptance of the role to which experience conditions individuals. Nothing in “Directive” leads to hope, whether for a Grail, Redemption, or an answer from a seemingly distant god. But it does promise a sense of peace, it implies a ritual with a climb but without expectation, an end of quenching the unexpected thirst earned in sweating uphill. Reality is the ordeal, and the drink the poem finally offers is solely clear water from a spring. Man is “beyond confusion” not least in this, wholly human both in having wept for the children’s playthings and in being gladdened by what was make believe in drinking from their cup. The thirst and need for absolution are satisfied, but the poem fulfills itself with a sacrament which redeems all experience by promising a grounded answer in nature.

Steeped in a Christian tradition, the reader is privy to only after all questions have been answered makes the poem “Directive” sincere and honest in a way only a writer who has lived through much can create. Finding in losing is the poem’s, and religion’s, crucial paradox, and unless a reader has been scared by their own desert places they may not be “lost enough” to be guided by Frost through this high-country quest. As it tests a reader’s earned humanity, not demanding any previous knowledge or requiring any future action, merely examining that which already exists within mankind, all that man wants is within reach. Just as this poem illuminates the cumulative import of the natural images the poet had always known, so the answer to man’s constant struggle for absolution is found. In a tradition and a long walk in the woods, there can be found peace in the light of a distant god and the engrossing sensations of being surrounded by nature.

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