In a poem titled "Directive," you might expect the first line to, well, tell you what to do.
So, um, what gives, Frosty? This is a pretty confusing first line. Is "Back out" meant to be read as an order? Or is it part of a description? We think the ambiguity here is deliberate. It sets the tone for a wild trip.
One thing we do know? There's an "us" here. We're being invited into the poem. And that "us"? Well, we may be feeling a bit overloaded by whatever it is that's "too much for us."
Did you hear the echo to another famous poem? There's no question Frost had another first line in mind when he wrote his.
This line begins as the first line does, with the word "back." That gives the poem a structure of anaphora, a ten-dollar word for the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of a line.
Only now the word isn't as ambiguous. The speaker is describing a "simple" past.
Why so simple? Well, it has something to do with "loss." But of what?
We're not sure yet, thanks to a pretty clever use of enjambment. That means we'll have to read on to find out what's lost—and why it has made this time simple.
Of detail, burned, dissolved, and broken off Like graveyard marble sculpture in the weather,
What loss made that time simple? The loss of detail. How'd that detail get lost? It was "burned, dissolved, and broken off."
We think our speaker's showing us how memory tends to simplify things. Time wears away the details and we're left with the basics of what we remember. Which, of course, only makes us feel all the more nostalgic, because when we look back, things seem neat, and pretty, and even easy.
Check out that simile in line 4. The speaker compares the loss of detail in memory through time to weathered tombstones, or "graveyard marble sculpture in the weather." Picture a tombstone with the dates worn away, the corners chipped off—the details of the life obliterated.
The imagery here isn't exactly peachy keen. First, a trip down memory lane sounds kind of nice. But now, we're comparing it to a graveyard. So is this simplicity a positive place to return to? Are these the good old days? Or is something more sinister going on?
Now that we've got a few lines under our belts, we can start looking at the form and structure of the poem. Notice anything, Shmoopers?
We do. For one thing, the lines are all the same length—about ten syllables. But they don't rhyme. That means we're dealing with a little thing we (and everyone else who knows anything about poetry) like to call blank verse. Check out our "Form and Meter" section for more.
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.
Ah, now we're getting somewhere. We've traveled back in time (in a manner of speaking) to find a house on a farm in a town… sort of.
Are you lost yet? It's cool, Shmoopers. That's pretty much the point. See, you're traveling back through time, which means that just when you think you've found something real, you realize that it's no longer there.
In the first half of each line, we're introduced to a place. And in the second half of each line, it's taken away from us. And we're reminded that we're dealing with the past, which has been changed through time. Cool trick of form, Frosty.
It's all a bit unsettling, we must say. It's almost as though you're on a tour, with the speaker as the tour guide, pointing out the landmarks and features of the landscape, but they're not there anymore. Maybe they exist only in the tour guide's memory.
And now they're there in your memory, too. But only because he put them there.
In any case, we can say some things for certain. The speaker is rooting us in a country setting. The imagery here makes us think of classic Frost—the swinger of birches. How much do you wanna bet this poem takes place in New England?