On "Home Burial"
The poem's first sentence, "He saw her from the bottom of the stairs / Before she saw him," implies what the poem very soon states: that, knowing herself seen, she would have acted differentlyshe has two sorts of behavior, behavior for him to observe and spontaneous immediate behavior: "She was starting down, / Looking back over her shoulder at some fear" says that it is some fear, and not a specific feared object, that she is looking back at; and, normally, we do not look back over our shoulder at what we leave, unless we feel for it something more than fear. "She took a doubtful step" emphasizes the queer attraction or fascination that the fear has for her; her departing step is not sure it should depart. "She took a doubtful step and then undid it ": the surprising use of undid gives her withdrawal of the tentative step a surprising reality. The poem goes on: "To raise herself and look again." It is a little vertical ballet of indecision toward and away from a fearful but mesmerically attractive object, something hard to decide to leave and easy to decide to return to. "He spoke / Advancing toward her": having the old line end with "spoke," the new line begin with "advancing," makes the very structure of the lines express the way in which he looms up, gets bigger. (Five lines later Frost repeats the effect even more forcibly with: "He said to gain time: 'What is it you see,' / Mounting until she cowered under him.") Now when the man asks: "What is it you see / From up there alwaysfor I want to know," the word "always" tells us that all this has gone on many times before, and that he has seen itwithout speaking of ita number of times before. The phrase "for I want to know" is a characteristic example of the heavy, willed demands that the man makes, and an even more characteristic example of the tautological, rhetorical announcements of his actions that he so often makes, as if he felt that the announcement somehow justified or excused the action.
The poem goes on: "She turned and sank upon her skirts at that . . ." The stairs permit her to subside into a modest, compact, feminine bundle; there is a kind of smooth deftness about the phrase, as if it were some feminine saying: "When in straits, sink upon your skirts." The next line, "And her face changed from terrified to dull," is an economically elegant way of showing how the terror of surprise (perhaps with another fear underneath it) changes into the dull lack of response that is her regular mask for him. The poem continues: "He said to gain time"to gain time in which to think of the next thing to say, to gain time in which to get close to her and gain the advantage of his physical nearness, his physical bulk. His next "What is it you see" is the first of his many repetitions; if one knew only this man one would say, "Man is the animal that repeats." In the poem's next phrase, "mounting until she cowered under him," the identity of the vowels in "mounting" and "cowered" physically connects the two, makes his mounting the plain immediate cause of her cowering. "I will find out now" is another of his rhetorical announcements of what he is going to do: "this time you're going to tell me, I'm ging to make you." But this heavy-willed compulsion changes into sheer appeal, into reasonable beseeching, in his next phrase: "you must tell me, dear." The "dear" is affectionate intimacy, the "must" is the "must "of rational necessity; yet the underlying form of the sentence is that of compulsion. The poem goes on: "She, in her place, refused him any help . . ." The separated phrase "in her place" describes and embodies, with economical brilliance, both her physical and spiritual lack of outgoingness, forthcomingness; she brims over none of her contours, remains sitting upon her skirts upon her stairstep, in feminine exclusion. "Refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence": she doesn't say Yes, doesn't say No, doesn't say; her refusal of any answer is worse than almost any answer. "The least stiffening of her neck," in its concise reserve, its slight precision, is more nearly conclusive than any larger gesture of rejection. He, in extremities, usually repeats some proverbial or rhetorical generalization; at such moments she usually responds either with a particular, specific sentence or else with something more particular than any sentence: with some motion or gesture.
The next line, "She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see," reminds one of some mother bird so certain that her nest is hidden that she doesn't even flutter off, but sits there on it, risking what is no risk, in complacent superiority. "Sure that he wouldn't see, / Blind creature": the last phrase is quoted from her mind, is her contemptuous summing up. "And awhile he didn't see"; but at last when he sees, he doesn't tell her what it is, doesn't silently understand, but with heavy slow comprehension murmurs, "Oh," and then repeats, "Oh." It is another announcement of what he is doing, a kind of dramatic rendition of his understanding. (Sometimes when we are waiting for someone, and have made some sound or motion we are afraid will seem ridiculous to the observer we didn't know was there, we rather ostentatiously look at our watch, move our face and lips into a "What on earth could have happened to make him so late?" as a way of justifying our earlier action. The principle behind our action is the principle behind many of this man's actions.) With the undignified alacrity of someone hurrying to reestablish a superiority that has been questioned, the woman cries out like a child: "What is itwhat?" Her sentence is, so to speak, a rhetorical question rather than a real one, since it takes it for granted that a correct answer can't be made. His reply, "Just that I see," shows that his unaccustomed insight has given him an unaccustomed composure; she has had the advantage, for so long, of being the only one who knows, that he for a moment prolongs the advantage of being the only one who knows that he knows. The immediately following "'You don't,' she challenged. 'Tell me what it is'" is the instant, childishly assertive exclamation of someone whose human position depends entirely upon her knowing what some inferior being can never know; she cannot let another second go by without hearing the incorrect answer that will confirm her in her rightness and superiority.
The man goes on explaining, to himself, and to mankind, and to her too, in slow rumination about it and about it. In his "The wonder is I didn't see at once. / I never noticed it from here before. / I must be wonted to itthat's the reason," one notices how "wonder" and "once" prepare for "wonted," that provincial-, archaic-sounding word that sums upas "used" never couldhis reliance on a habit or accustomedness which at last sees nothing but itself, and hardly sees that; and when it does see something through itself, beyond itself, slowly marvels. In the next line, "The little graveyard where my people are!" we feel not only the triumph of the slow person at last comprehending, but also the tender, easy accustomedness of habit, of long use, of a kind of cozy social continuancefor him the graves are not the healed scars of old agonies, but are something as comfortable and accustomed as the photographs in the family album. "So small the window frames the whole of it," like the later "Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight / On the sidehill," not only has this easy comfortable acceptance, but also has the regular feel of a certain sort of Frost nature description: this is almost the only place in the poem where for a moment we feel that it is Frost talking first and the man talking second. But the man's "Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?"an observation that appeals to her for agreementcarries this comfortable acceptance to a point at which it becomes intolerable: the only link between the bedroom and the graveyard is the child conceived in their bedroom and buried in that graveyard. The sentence comfortably establishes a connection which she cannot bear to admit the existence ofshe tries to keep the two things permanently separated in her mind. (What he says amounts to his saying about their bedroom: "Not so much smaller than the graveyard, is it?") "There are three stones of slate and one of marble, / Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight / On the sidehill " has a heavy tenderness and accustomedness about it, almost as if he were running his hand over the grain of the stone. The "little" graveyard and "little" slabs are examples of our regular way of making something acceptable or dear by means of a diminutive.
Next, to show her how well he understands, the man shows her how ill he understands. He says about his family's graves: "We haven't to mind those"; that is, we don't have to worry about, grieve over, my people: it is not your obligation to grieve for them at all, nor mine to give them more than their proper share of grief, the amount I long ago measured out and used up. But with the feeling, akin to a sad, modest, relieved, surprised pride, with which he regularly responds to his own understanding, he tells her that he does understand: what matters is not the old stones but the new mound, the displaced earth piled up above the grave which he had dug and in which their child is buried.
When he says this, it is as if he had touched, with a crude desecrating hand, the sacred, forbidden secret upon which her existence depends. With shuddering hysterical revulsion she cries: "Don't, don't, don't, don't." (If the reader will compare the effect of Frost's four don't's with the effect of three or five, he will see once more how exactly accurate, perfectly effective, almost everything in the poem is.) The poem continues: "She withdrew shrinking from beneath his arm / That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs"; the word "slid" says, with vivid indecorousness, that anything goes in extremities, that you can't be bothered, then, by mere appearance or propriety; "slid" has the ludicrous force of actual fact, is the way things are instead of the way we agree they are. In the line "And turned on him with such a daunting look," the phrase "turned on him " makes her resemble a cornered animal turning on its pursuer; and "with such a daunting look" is the way he phrases it to himself, is quoted from his mind as "blind creature" was quoted from hers. The beautifully provincial, old-fashioned, folk-sounding "daunting" reminds one of the similar, slightly earlier "wonted," and seems to make immediate, as no other word could, the look that cows him. The next line, " He said twice over before he knew himself," tells us that repetition, saying something twice over, is something he regresses to under stress; unless he can consciously prevent himself from repeating, he repeats. What he says twice over (this is the third time already that he has repeated something) is a rhetorical question, a querulous, plaintive appeal to public opinion: "Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?" He does not say specifically, particularly, with confidence in himself: "I've the right to speak of our dead child"; instead he cites the acknowledged fact that any member of the class man has the acknowledged right to mention, just to mention, that member of the class of his belongings, his own childand he has been unjustly deprived of this right. "His own child he's lost" is a way of saying: "You act as if he were just yours, but he's just as much just mine; that's an established fact." "Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost" has a magnificently dissonant, abject, aggrieved querulousness about it, in all its sounds and all its rhythms; "Can't a man" prepares us for the even more triumphantly ugly dissonance (or should I say consonance?) of the last two words in her "I don't know rightly whether any man can."
Any rhetorical question demands, expects, the hearer's automatic agreement; there is nothing it expects less than a particular, specific denial. The man's "Can't a man speak . . ." means "Isn't any man allowed to speak . . . ," but her fatally specific answer, "Not you!" makes it mean, "A man cannotis not able tospeak, if the man is you." Her "Oh, where's my hat?" is a speech accompanied by action, means: "I'm leaving. Where's the hat which social convention demands that a respectable woman put on, to go out into the world?" The immediately following "Oh, I don't need it!" means: in extremities, in cases when we come down to what really matters, what does social convention or respectability really matter? Her "I must get out of here. I must get air" says that you breathe understanding and suffocate without it, and that in this house, for her, there is none. Then, most extraordinarily, she gives a second specific answer to his rhetorical question, that had expected none: "I don't know rightly whether any man can." The line says: "Perhaps it is not the individual you that's to blame, but man in general; perhaps a woman is wrong to expect that any man can speakreally speakof his dead child."
His "Amy! Don't go to someone else this time" of course tells us that another time she has gone to someone else; and it tells us the particular name of this most particular woman, something that she and the poem never tell us about the man. The man's "Listen to me. I won't come down the stairs" tells us that earlier he has come down the stairs, hasn't kept his distance. It (along with "shrinking," "cowered," and many later things in the poem) tells us that he has given her reason to be physically afraid of him; his "I won't come down the stairs" is a kind of euphemism for "I won't hurt you, won't even get near you."
The poem's next sentence, "He sat and fixed his chin between his fists"period, end of linewith its four short i's, its "fixed " and "fists," fixes him in baffled separateness; the sentence fits into the line as he fits into the isolated perplexity of his existence. Once more he makes a rhetorical announcement of what he is about to do, before he does it: "There's something I should like to ask you, dear." The sentence tiptoes in, gentle, almost abjectly mollifying, and ends with a reminding "dear"; it is an indirect rhetorical appeal that expects for an answer at least a grudging: "Well, go ahead and ask it, then." His sentence presupposes the hearer's agreement with what it implies: "Anyone is at least allowed to ask, even if afterwards you refuse him what he asks." The woman once more gives a direct, crushing, particular answer: "You don't know how to ask it." "Anyone may be allowed to ask, but you are not because you are not able to ask"; we don't even need to refuse an animal the right to ask and be refused, since if we gave him the right he couldn't exercise it. The man's "Help me, then," has an absolute, almost abject helplessness, a controlled child-like simplicity, that we pity and sympathize with; yet we can't help remembering the other side of the coin, the heavy, brutal, equally simple and helpless anger of his later I'll come down to you.
The next line, "Her fingers moved the latch for all reply" (like the earlier "She . . . refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence"; like "And turned on him with such a daunting look"; like the later "She moved the latch a little"; like the last "She was opening the door wider"), reminds us that the woman has a motion language more immediate, direct, and particular than wordsa language she resorts to in extremities, just as he, in extremities, resorts to a language of repeated proverbial generalizations. "Home Burial" starts on the stairs but continues in the doorway, on the threshold between the old life inside and the new life outside.
The man now begins his long appeal with the slow, heavy, hopeless admission that "My words are nearly always an offence." This can mean, "Something is nearly always wrong with me and my words," but it also can meandoes mean, underneaththat she is to be blamed for nearly always finding offensive things that certainly are not meant to offend. "I don't know how to speak of anything / So as to please you" admits, sadly blames himself for, his baffled ignorance, but it also suggests that she is unreasonably, fantastically hard to pleaseif the phrase came a little later in his long speech he might pronounce it "so as to please you." (Whatever the speaker intends, there are no long peacemaking speeches in a quarrel; after a few sentences the speaker always has begun to blame the other again.) The man's aggrieved, blaming "But I might be taught, / I should suppose" is followed by the helpless, very endearing admission: "I can't say I see how"; for the moment this removes the blame from her, and his honesty of concession makes us unwilling to blame him. He tries to summarize his dearly bought understanding in a generalization, almost a proverb: "A man must partly give up being a man / With women-folk." The sentence begins in the dignified regretful sunlight of the main floor, in "A man must partly give up being a man," and ends huddled in the basement below, in "With women-folk." He doesn't, use the parallel, coordinate "with a woman," but the entirely different "with women-folk"; the sentence tries to be fair and objective, but it is as completely weighted a sentence as "A man must partly give up being a man with the kiddies," or "A man must partly give up being a man with Bandar-log." The sentence presupposes that the real right norm is a man being a man with men, and that some of this rightness and normality always must be sacrificed with that special case, that inferior anomalous category, "women-folk."
He goes on: "We could have some arrangement [it has a hopeful, indefinite, slightly helter-skelter sound] / By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off "the phrases "bind myself" and "keep hands off" have the primitive, awkward materiality of someone taking an oath in a bad saga; we expect the sentence to end in some awkwardly impressive climax, but get the almost ludicrous anticlimax of "Anything special you're a-mind to name." And, too, the phrase makes whatever she names quite willful on her part, quite unpredictable by reasonable man. His sensitivity usually shows itself to be a willing, hopeful form of insensitivity, and he himself realizes this here, saying, "Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love." Frost then makes him express his own feeling in a partially truthful but elephantine aphorism that lumbers through a queerly stressed line a foot too long ("Two that don't love can't live together without them") into a conclusion ("But two that do can't live together with them") that has some of the slow, heavy relish just in being proverbial that the man so often shows. (How hard it is to get through the monosyllables of the two lines!) His words don't convince her, and she replies to them without words: "She moved the latch a little." He repeats in grieved appeal: "Don'tdon't go. / Don't carry it to someone else this time." (He is repeating an earlier sentence, with "Don't go" changed to "Don't carry it.") The next line, "Tell me about it if it's something human," is particularly interesting when it comes from him. When is something inside a human being not human, so that it can't be told? Isn't it when it is outside man's understanding, outside all man's categories and pigeonholeswhen there is no proverb to say for it? It is, then, a waste or abyss impossible to understand or manage or share with another. His next appeal to her, "Let me into your grief," combines an underlying sexual metaphor with a child's "Let me in! let me in!" This man who is so much a member of the human community feels a helpless bewilderment at being shut out of the little group of two of which he was once an anomalous half; the woman has put in the place of this group a group of herself-and-the-dead-child, and he begs or threatensreasons with her as best he canin his attempt to get her to restore the first group, so that there will be a man-and-wife grieving over their dead child.
He goes on: "I'm not so much / Unlike other folks as your standing there / Apart would make me out." The "standing there / Apart" is an imitative, expressive form that makes her apart, shows her apart. Really her apartness makes him out like other folks, all those others who make pretense of following to the grave, but who before one's back is turned have made their way back to life; but he necessarily misunderstands her, since for him being like others is necessarily good, being unlike them necessarily bad. His "Give me my chance"he doesn't say a chancereminds one of those masculine things fairness and sportsmanship, and makes one think of the child's demand for justice, equal shares, which follows his original demand for exclusive possession, the lion's share. "Give me my chance" means: "You, like everybody else, must admit that anybody deserves a chanceso give me mine"; he deserves his chance not by any particular qualities, personal merit, but just by virtue of being a human being. His "I do think, though, you overdo it a little" says that he is forced against his will to criticize her for so much exceeding (the phrase "a little" is understatement, politeness, and caution) the norm of grief, for mourning more than is usual or reasonable; the phrase "overdo it a little" manages to reduce her grief to the level of a petty social blunder. His next words, "What was it brought you up to think it the thing / To take your mother-loss of a first child / So inconsolablyin the face of love," manage to crowd four or five kinds of condemnation into a single sentence. "What was it brought you up" says that it is not your essential being but your accidental upbringing that has made you do this-it reduces the woman to a helpless social effect. "To think it the thing" is particularly insulting because it makes her grief a mere matter of fashion; it is as though he were saying, "What was it brought you up to think it the thing to wear your skirt that far above your knees?" The phrase "To take your mother-loss of a first child " pigeonholes her loss, makes it a regular, predictable category that demands a regular, predictable amount of grief, and no more. The phrase "So inconsolablyin the face of love" condemns her for being so unreasonable as not to be consoled by, for paying no attention to, that unarguably good, absolutely general thing, love; the generalized love makes demands upon her that are inescapable, compared to those which would be made by a more specific phrase like "in the face of my love for you." The man's "You'd think his memory might be satisfied " again condemns her for exceeding the reasonable social norm of grief; condemns her, jealously, for mourning as if the dead child's demands for grief were insatiable.
Her interruption, "There you go sneering now!" implies that he has often before done what she calls "sneering" at her and her excessive sensitivity; and, conscious of how hard he has been trying to make peace, and unconscious of how much his words have gone over into attack, he contradicts her like a child, in righteous anger: "I'm not, I'm not!" His "You make me angry" is another of his rhetorical, tautological announcements about himself, one that is intended somehow to justify the breaking of his promise not to come down to her; he immediately makes the simple childish threat, "I'll come down to you"he is repeating his promise, "I won't come down to you," with the "not" removed. "God, what a woman!" righteously and despairingly calls on God and public opinion ( that voice of the people which is the voice of God) to witness and marvel at what he is being forced to put up with: the fantastic, the almost unbelievable wrongness and unreasonableness of this woman. "And it's come to this," that regular piece of rhetorical recrimination in quarrels, introduces his third use of the sentence "Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost"; but this time the rhetorical question is changed into the factual condemnation of "A man can't speak of his own child that's dead." This time he doesn't end the sentence with the more sentimental, decorous, sympathydemanding "that's lost," but ends with the categorical "that's dead."
Earlier the woman has given two entirely different, entirely specific and unexpected answers to this rhetorical question of his; this time she has a third specific answer, which she makes with monosyllabic precision and finality: "You can't because you don't know how to speak." He has said that it is an awful thing not to be permitted to speak of his own dead child; she replies that it is not a question of permission but of ability, that he is too ignorant and insensitive to be able to speak of his child. Her sentence is one line long, and it is only the second sentence of hers that has been that long. He has talked at length during the first two-thirds of the poem, she in three- or four-word phrases or in motions without words; for the rest of the poem she talks at length, as everything that has been shut up inside her begins to pour out. She opens herself up, nowis far closer to him, striking at him with her words, than she has been sitting apart, in her place. His open attack has finally elicited from her, by contagion, her open anger, so that now he is something real and unbearable to attack, instead of being something less than human to be disregarded.
This first sentence has indicted him; now she brings in the specific evidence for the indictment. She says: "If you had any feelings, you that dug / With your own hand "but after the three stabbing, indicting stresses of
/ / /
your own hand
she breaks off the sentence, as if she found the end unbearable to go on to; interjects, her throat tightening, the incredulous rhetorical question, "how could you?"and finishes with the fact that she tries to make more nearly endurable, more euphemistic, with the tender word "little": "his little grave." The syntax of the sentence doesn't continue, but the fact of things continues; she says, "I saw you from that very window there."
/ / / /
That very window there
has the same stabbing stresses, the same emphasis on a specific, damning actuality, that
/ / /
your own hand
hadand that, soon,
/ / /
my own eyes
/ / / /
your own baby's grave
and other such phrases Will have. She goes on: "Making the gravel leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly / And roll back down the mound beside the hole." As the sentence imitates with such terrible life and accuracy the motion of the gravel, her throat tightens and aches in her hysterical repetition of "like that, like that": the sounds of "leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly" are "le! le! le! li! li! la! li!" and re-create the sustained hysteria she felt as she first watched; inanimate things, the very stones, leap and leap in air, or when their motion subsides land "so lightly," while the animate being, her dead child, does not move, will never move. (The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.) Her words "leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that" keep the stones alive! alive! alive!in the words "and land" they start to die away, but the following words "So lightly" make them, alive again, for a last moment of unbearable contradiction, before they "roll back down the mound beside the hole. " The repeated o's ( the line says "oh! ow! ow! oh!") make almost crudely actual the abyss of death into which the pieces of gravel and her child fall, not to rise again. The word "hole" (insisted on even more by the rhyme with "roll") gives to the grave the obscene actuality that watching the digging forced it to have for her.
She says: "I thought, Who is that man? I didn't know you." She sees the strange new meaning in his face (what, underneath, the face has meant all along) so powerfully that the face itself seems a stranger's. If her own husband can do something so impossibly alien to all her expectations, he has never really been anything but alien; all her repressed antagonistic knowledge about his insensitivity comes to the surface and masks what before had masked it. In the next sentence, "And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs / To look again," the word "crept" makes her a little mouselike thing crushed under the weight of her new knowledge. But the truly extraordinary word is the "and" that joins "down the stairs" to "up the stairs." What is so extraordinary is that she sees nothing extraordinary about it: the "and" joining the two coordinates hides from her, shows that she has repressed, the thoroughly illogical, contradictory nature of her action; it is like saying: "And I ran out of the fire and back into the fire," and seeing nothing strange about the sentence.
Her next words, "and still your spade kept lifting," give the man's tool a dead, mechanical life of its own; it keeps on and on, crudely, remorselessly, neither guided nor halted by spirit. She continues: "Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice / Out in the kitchen"; the word "rumbling" gives this great blind creature an insensate weight and strength that are, somehow, hollow. Then she says that she did something as extraordinary as going back up the stairs, but she masks it, this time, with the phrase "and I don't know why." She doesn't know why, it's unaccountable, "But I went near to see, with my own eyes." Her "I don't know why" shows her regular refusal to admit things like these; she manages by a confession of ignorance not to have to make the connections, consciously, that she has already made unconsciously.
She now says a sentence that is an extraordinarily conclusive condemnation of him: "You could sit there with the stains on your shoes /Of the fresh earth from your own baby's grave / And talk about your everyday concerns." The five hissing or spitting s's in the strongly accented "sit," "stains," "shoes"; the whole turning upside down of the first line, with four trochaic feet followed by one poor iamb; the concentration of intense, damning stresses in
/ / / / / /
fresh earth from your own baby's grave
--all these things give an awful finality to the judge's summing up, so that in the last line, "And talk about your everyday concerns," the criminal's matter-of-fact obliviousness has the perversity of absolute insensitivity: Judas sits under the cross matching pennies with the soldiers. The poem has brought to life an unthought-of literal meaning of its title: this is home burial with a vengeance, burial in the home; the fresh dirt of the grave stains her husband's shoes and her kitchen floor, and the dirty spade with which he dug the grave stands there in the entry. As a final unnecessary piece of evidence, a last straw that comes long after the camel's back is broken, she states: "You had stood the spade up against the wall / Outside there in the entry, for I saw it." All her pieces of evidence have written underneath them, like Goya's drawing, that triumphant, traumatic, unarguable I SAW IT.
The man's next sentence is a kind of summing-up-in-little of his regular behavior, the
ways in which (we have come to see) he has to respond. He has begged her to let him
into her grief, to tell him about it if it's something human; now she lets him into not
her grief but her revolted, hating condemnation of him; she does tell him about it and it
isn't human, but a nightmare into which he is about to fall. He says: "I shall laugh
the worst laugh I ever laughed. / I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed."
The sounds have the gasping hollowness of somebody hit in the stomach and trying over and
over to get his breathof someone nauseated and beginning to vomit: the first
stressed vowel sounds are "agh! uh! agh! uh! agh1 uh!" He doesn't reply to her,
argue with her, address her at all, but makes a kind of dramatic speech that will exhibit
him in a role public opinion will surely sympathize with, just as he sympathizes with
himself. As always, he repeats: "laugh," "laugh," and
"laughed," "I'm cursed" and "I'm cursed" (the rhyme with
"worst" gives almost the effect of another repetition): as always, he announces
beforehand what he is going to do, rhetorically appealing to mankind for justification and
sympathy. His "
I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed " has the queer effect of seeming almost to be quoting some folk proverb. His "I'm cursed" manages to find a category of understanding in which to pigeonhole this nightmare, makes him a reasonable human being helpless against the inhuman powers of evilthe cursed one is not to blame. His "God, if I don't believe I'm cursed" is akin to his earner "God, what a woman!"both have something of the male's outraged, incredulous, despairing response to the unreasonableness and immorality of the female. He responds hardly at all to the exact situation; instead he demands sympathy for, sympathizes with himself for, the impossibly unlucky pigeonhole into which Fate has dropped him.
His wife then repeats the sentence that, for her, sums up everything: "I can repeat the very words you were saying. / 'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.'" We feel with a rueful smile that he has lived by proverbs andnow, for herdies by them. He has handled his fresh grief by making it a part of man's regular routine, man's regular work; and by quoting man's regular wisdom, that explains, explains away, pigeonholes, anything. Nature tramples down man's work, the new fence rots, but man still is victorious, in the secure summing up of the proverb.
/ / /
The best birch fence
is, so far as its stresses are concerned, a firm, comfortable parody of all those stabbing stress systems of hers. In his statement, as usual, it is not I but a man. There is a resigned but complacent, almost relishing wit about this summing up of the transitoriness of human effort: to understand your defeat so firmly, so proverbially, is in a sense to triumph. He has seen his ordinary human ambition about that ordinary human thing, a child, frustrated by death; so there is a certain resignation and pathos about his saying what he says. The word "rot " makes the connection between the fence and the child, and it is the word "rot" that is unendurable to the woman, since it implies with obscene directness: how many foggy mornings and rainy days will it take to rot the best flesh-and-blood child a man can have? Just as, long ago at the beginning of the poem, the man brought the bedroom and the grave together, he brings the rotting child and the rotting fence together now. She says in incredulous, breathless outrage: "Think of it, talk like that at such a time!" (The repeated sounds) th, t, t, th, t, t, are thoroughly expressive.) But once more she has repressed the connection between the two things: she objects to the sentence not as what she knows it is, as rawly and tactlessly relevant, but as something absolutely irrelevant, saying: "What had how long it takes a birch to rot / To do with"and then she puts in a euphemistic circumlocution, lowers her eyes and lowers the shades so as not to see"what was in the darkened parlor."
But it is time to go back and think of just what it was the woman saw, just how she saw it, to make her keep on repeating that first occasion of its sight. She saw it on a holy and awful day. The child's death and burial were a great and almost unendurable occasion, something that needed to be accompanied with prayer and abstention, with real grief and the ritual expression of grief. It was a holy or holi-day that could only be desecrated by "everyday concerns"; the husbands digging seemed to the wife a kind of brutally unfeeling, secular profanation of that holy day, her holy grief. Her description makes it plain that her husband dug strongly and well. And why should he not do so? Grief and grave digging, for him, are in separate compartments; the right amount of grief will never flow over into the next compartment. To him it is the workaday, matter-of-fact thing that necessarily comes first; grieving for the corpse is no excuse for not having plenty of food at the wake. If someone had said to him: "You dig mighty well for a man that's just lost his child," wouldn't he have replied: "Grief's no reason for doing a bad job"? (And yet, the muscles tell the truth; a sad enough man shovels badly.) When, the grave dug and the spade stood up in the entry, he went into the kitchen, he may very well have felt: "A good job," just as Yakov, in Rothschild's Fiddle, taps the coffin he has made for his wife and thinks: "A good job."
But unconsciously, his wife has far more compelling reasons to be appalled at this job her husband is doing. Let me make this plain. If we are told how a woman dreams of climbing the stairs, and of looking out through a window at a man digging a hole with a spadedigging powerfully, so that the gravel leaps and leaps into the air, only to roll back down into the hole; and still the man's spade keeps lifting and plunging down, lifting and plunging down, as she watches in fascinated horror, creeps down the stairs, creeps back up against her will, to keep on watching; and then, she doesn't know why, she has to go to see with her own eyes the fresh earth staining the man's shoes, has to see with her own eyes the man's tool stood up against the wall, in the entrance to the houseif we are told such a dream, is there any doubt what sort of dream it will seem to us? Such things have a sexual force, a sexual meaning, . . .
That day of the funeral the grieving woman felt only misery and anguish, passive suffering; there was nobody to blame for it all except herself. . . . the woman's feeling of guilt about other things is displaced onto the child's death. Now when this woman sees her husband digging the grave (doing what seems to her, consciously, an intolerably insensitive thing; unconsciously, an indecent thing) she does have someone to blame, someone upon whom to shift her own guilt: she is able to substitute for passive suffering and guilt an active loathing and condemnationas she blames the man's greater guilt and wrongness her own lesser guilt can seem in comparison innocence and rightness. (The whole matrix of attitudes available to her, about woman as Madonna-and-child and man as brute beast, about sexuality as a defiling thing forced upon woman, helps her to make this shift.) The poem has made it easy for us to suspect a partial antagonism or uncongeniality, sexually, between the weak oversensitive woman and the strong insensitive man, with his sexual force so easily transformed into menace. (The poem always treats it in that form.) The woman's negative attitudes have been overwhelmingly strengthened, now; it is plain that since the child's death there has been no sort of sexual or emotional union between them. . . .
She has put grief, the dead child, apart on an altar, to be kept separate and essential as long as possibleforever, if possible. He has immediately filed away the child, grief, in the pigeonhole of man's wont, man's proverbial understanding: the weight is off his own separate shoulders, and the shoulders of all mankind bear the burden. In this disaster of her child's death, her husband's crime, her one consolation is that she is inconsolable, has (good sensitive woman) grieved for months as her husband (bad insensitive man) was not able to grieve even for hours. Ceasing to grieve would destroy this consolation, would destroy the only way of life she has managed to find.
And yet she has begun to destroy them. When she says at the end of the poem: "How can I make you" understand, see, she shows in her baffled, longing despair that she has tried to make him understand; has tried to help him as he asked her to help him. Her "You couldn't care," all her lines about what friends and the world necessarily are, excuse him in a way, by making him a necessarily insensitive part of a necessarily insensitive world that she alone is sensitive in: she is the one person desperately and forlornly trying to be different from everyone else, as she tries to keep death and grief alive in the middle of a world intent on its own forgetful life. At these last moments she does not, as he thinks, "set him apart" as "so much / Unlike other folks"; if he could hear and respond to what she actually has said, there would be some hope for them. But he doesn't; instead of understanding her special situation, he dumps her into the pigeonhole of the crying womanany crying womanand then tries to manage her as one manages a child. She does try to let him into her grief, but he won't go; instead he tells her that now she's had her cry, that now he feels better, that the heart's gone out of it, that there's really no grief left for him to be let into.
The helpless tears into which her hard self-righteous separateness has dissolved show, underneath, a willingness to accept understanding; she has denounced him, made a clean breast of things, and now is accessible to the understanding or empathy that he is unable to give her. Women are oversensitive, exaggerate everything, tell all, weep, and then are all right: this is the pigeonhole into which he drops her. So rapid an understanding can almost be called a form of stupidity, of not even trying really to understand. The bewitched, un canny, almost nauseated helplessness of what he has said a few lines before: "I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed. / I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed," has already changed into a feeling of mastery, of the strong man understanding and managing the weak hysterical woman. He is the powerful one now. His "There, you have said it all and you feel better. / You won't go now" has all the grown-up's condescension toward the child, the grown-up's ability to make the child do something simply by stating that the child is about to do it. The man's "You're crying. Close the door. / The heart's gone out of it: why keep it up" shows this quite as strikingly; he feels that he can manipulate her back into the house and into his life, back out of the grief thathe thinks or hopesno longer has any heart in it, so that she must pettily and exhaustingly "keep it up."
But at this moment when the depths have been opened for him; at this moment when the proper management might get her back into the house, the proper understanding get her back into his life; at this moment that it is fair to call the most important moment of his life, someone happens to come down the road. Someone who will see her crying and hatless in the doorway; someone who will go back to the village and tell everything; someone who will shame them in the eyes of the world. Public opinion, what people will say, is more important to him than anything she will do; he forgets everything else, and expostulates: "Amy! There' s someone coming down the road! " His exclamation is full of the tense, hurried fear of social impropriety, of public disgrace; nothing could show more forcibly what he is able to understand, what he does think of primary importance. Her earlier "Oh, where's my hat? Oh, I don't need it!" prepares for, is the exact opposite of, his "Amy! There's someone coming down the road!"
She says with incredulous, absolute intensity and particularity, "You"
That italicized you is the worst, the most nearly final thing that she can say about him, since it merely points to what he is. She doesn't go on; goes back and replies to his earlier sentences: "oh, you think the talk is all." Her words have a despairing limpness and sadness: there is no possibility of his being made to think anything different, to see the truth under the talk. She says: "I must go" and her words merely recognize a reality"Somewhere out of this house." Her final words are full of a longing, despairing, regretful realization of a kind of final impossibility: "How can I make you" The word that isn't said, that she stops short of saying, is as much there as anything in the poem. All her insistent anxious pride in her own separateness and sensitiveness and superiority is gone; she knows, now, that she is separate from him no matter what she wants. Her "How can I make you" amounts almost to "If only I could make youif only there were some way to make youbut there is no way."
He responds not to what she says but to what she does, to "She was opening the door wider." He threatens, as a child would threaten: "Ifyoudo!" He sounds like a giant child, or a child being a giant or an ogre. The "Ifyoudo!" uses as its principle of being the exaggerated slowness and heaviness, the willedness of his nature. (Much about him reminds me of Yeats's famous definition: "Rhetoric is the will trying to do the work of the imagination"; "Home Burial" might be called the story of a marriage between the will and the imagination.) The dashes Frost inserts between the words slow down the words to the point where the slowedness or heaviness itself, as pure force and menace, is what is communicated. Then the man says, trying desperatelyfeeblyto keep her within reach of that force or menace: "Where do you mean to go? First tell me that. / I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will! " The last sentences of each of her previous speeches (her despairing emotional "Oh, I won't, I won't!" and her despairing spiritual "How can I make you") are almost the exact opposite of the "I will!" with which he ends the poem. It is appropriate that "force," "I," and "will" are his last three words: his proverbial, town-meeting understanding has failed, just as his blankly imploring humility has failed; so that he has to resort to the only thing he has left, the will or force that seems almost like the mass or inertia of a physical body. We say that someone "throws his weight around," and in the end there is nothing left for him to do but throw his weight around. Appropriately, his last line is one more rhetorical announcement of what he is going to do: he will follow and bring her back by force; and, appropriately, he ends the poem with one more repetitionhe repeats: " I will!"
Excerpted from Jarrell, "Robert Frost's 'Home Burial'" in The Third Book of Criticism (1962). For the complete essay (along with a generous selection of Jarrell's other criticism) see Randall Jarrell, No Other Book: Selected Essays. Ed. Brad Leithauser. New York: Perennial, 1999. Copyright © 1999 by Mary Jarrell.
In "Home Burial," the couple are trapped inside the house, which is described as a kind of prison, or perhaps more aptly, a mental hospital. Even the wife's glance out the window can suggest to the husband the desperation she feels within the confines of what has always been his family's "home"; it looks directly on the family graveyard which now holds the body of their recently dead child:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: "What is it you see
From up there always -- for I want to know." [always?]
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: "What is it you see," [see?]
Mounting until she cowered under him.
"I will find out now -- you must tell me, dear."
The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that the feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. For a comparable sense of divorcement communicated mostly by silent uses of space in a "home," a supposedly shared area, perhaps the best analogy is not to be found in literature but in film, such as the opening of Antonioni's La Notte. But of course Frost's special genius is in the placement of words. The first line poses the husband as a kind of spy; the opening of the second line suggests a habituated wariness on her part, but from that point to line 5 we are shifted back to his glimpse of her as she moves obsessively again, as yet unaware of being watched, to the window. Suggestions of alienation, secretiveness, male intimidation ("advancing toward her") within a situation of mutual distrust, a miasmic fear inside as well as outside the house - we are made to sense this before anyone speaks. Initially the fault seems to lie mostly with the husband. But as soon as she catches him watching her, and as soon as he begins to talk, it is the grim mutuality of their dilemma and the shared responsibilities for it that sustain the dramatic intelligence and power of the poem.
I have indicated in the margin a number of the emendations made by Lathem in his edition - which is assumed to be "authoritative" - because his version substantially loses the poignant delicacy with which Frost treats the estrangement between husband and wife.
Lathem chose to make two emendations wholly on his own: he added a question mark after "always" in line 7, and he put a comma after "help" in line 13. He also arbitrarily chose to follow early editions by allowing a question mark at the end of line 10, though Frost had deleted it in all the editions he supervised after 1936, including the 1949 Complete Poems. These textual matters are worth considering, because while Lathem's choices hurt the poem, they make us aware of punctuation in ways that considerably increase our appreciation of nuances which might otherwise go unremarked. We can note, for example, the scrupulous justice with which Frost tries to locate, even through the use of a comma, the sources of conflict in this "home." There is a marvelously managed shifting in the apportionment of blame. Thus the man's initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem's question mark gives it. Without the question mark, there is the implication that the husband has learned, after many trying experiences, not to expect an answer to his questions. And the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him is then confirmed by the fact that instead, of showing fear at his "advancing on her," her face, on his near approach, changes from "terrified to dull." Nonetheless, the choice of "until" and "under" in the phrase "mounting until she cowered under him" suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still ("'I will find out now - you must tell me, dear"') with its allowable lack of stress on the word "now" and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word "dear." Frost did not choose to put a comma after the word "help" ("She, in her place, refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence"), and its absence is crucial to our recognition of how perverse and stubbornly uncompliant she can be. With the comma added, the line suggests that her stiffness and silence merely accompanied her refusal to tell him what she had seen out the window; without the comma, we are allowed to infer that she would choose not to stiffen her neck lest she thereby give him any clue at all about what she has been staring at: "Sure that he wouldn't see / Blind creature . . ." These surges of surreptitious feeling between the two of them obviously result not from their immediate juxtaposition on the stairs but from a customary incapacity to share any feelings with one another.
Of course he does see what is out there, the child's grave. And her challenge then to "'Tell me what it is"' is merely the first of many instances in which differences are defined, as they so often are in Frost, as differences in the use of words, in the way one speaks or hears things, in the uses to which a metaphor is put, be it sane or crazy, brutal or insensitive: "'You don't know how to ask it"' (line 43), she complains, and he - "'My words are nearly always an offense. / I don't know how to speak of anything' " (lines 45-46); or, again (line 70), "'A man can't speak of his own child that's dead,'" to which in the next line she replies, "'You can't because you don't know how to speak."' Her lengthy indictment of him near the end of the poem begins with her claim, "'I can repeat the very words that you were saying . . . think of it, talk like that at such a time!'" (lines 91, 94). One of the husband's initial mentions of the graveyard does betray a certain tactless predominance and possessiveness ("'The little graveyard where my people are!"'), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance ("'So small the window frames the whole of it"'). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: "'Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?"' In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband's comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage. But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her " 'Don't - Don't go./ Don't carry it to someone else this time"' (lines 56-57), he is less peremptory than is she: "'Don't, don't, don't, don't' she cried" (line 29), a line that is as remarkably powerful in its effect as a similar one in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants": "Will you Please please please please please please please stop talking?" She is asking him not to speak; he is asking her not to leave him.
Out of some terrible fastidiousness she seems to want to abridge even what is left of their relationship, while he, because of love, and some incipient pride of place in the community, is doing his best to maintain some sort of contact. . . .
Sexuality in Frost has been noted, when at all, with a kind of surprise. And yet in a very great number of his poems it figures, as it does here, as a submerged metaphor for his all-consuming interest in the relational and transitional nature of poetry, of thinking, of talking itself. The husband and wife here cannot "ask" anything of one another or "tell" anything without giving offense partly because they both are flawed in their sense of time and of timing. With her desire to stop everything in the interest of mourning the death of an infant, she cannot understand his apparent incapacity to mourn at all and his choosing to talk, instead, of everyday concerns. She does not see that this is his only way of managing grief, of not letting it consume his or her life. And the words she accuses him of using as he sat there talking on the day he buried his child - "'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build"' - form hemselves without his knowing it, but with complete appropriateness, into a metaphor for the way nature, if only by some accident of weather, will erode whatever human beings might make to protect themselves from the reality of change and death. The wife sees and then describes her husband's actions on that day with an angry exactitude, a kind of novelistic passion for detail, characteristic of country women in the poems we have been looking at:
If you had any feelings, you that dug
With your own hand -- how could you? -- his little grave;
I saw you from that very window there,
Making the gravel leap and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole.
I thought, Who is that man? I didn't know you.
And I crept down the stairs and up the stairs
To look again, and still your spade kept lifting.
Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don't know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby's grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it."
There is a genius here of a sort found in the brilliantly right sentence in Joyce's "The Dead" when Gretta remembers how her dead lover of long ago stood under her window in a cold that was to chill him to his death: "'I can see his eyes as well as well!"' she says to Gabriel. "'He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree."' Allen Tate remarks on how a vision of the past is framed with startling immediacy by the mention of that "tree," how it lets us share a reality vividly present to the person speaking. The same peculiar convergence of past and present occurs here, thanks to Frost's keen sense of the power of variation and repetition: "'Making the gravel leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly.'" Her charge continues, and with the same haunted exactness of recollection:
"I can repeat the very words you were saying:
'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.'
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?"
It is important here to notice the comparative bareness of the attendant language when she quotes the metaphor of the "birch fence." His inability to respond effectively to her charges is understandable: an indictment cannot be answered when it is only more or less a description, as if certain words and acts are inherently contemptible. " 'I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed,' " he says, and indeed he is being "cursed": there is no word more apt for what she says to him. It is worth recollecting here something that Frost wrote in a letter to Wilbert Snow, a poet and professor of English at Wesleyan University, in 1933:
My mind goes back to how true Turgeneff holds the balance between protagonists and antagonists in the death of Bayarov in Fathers and Sons. He is perfect in his non-partizanship. I never quite like to hear a wife turned on against her husband or vice versa. They know too much about each other and they are not disinterested. They lack, what they should lack, detachment. Maybe it bothers me as a breach of manners (Thompson, Letters, p. 393).
On the chance that the wife's accusations might prove more persuasive than they should, Frost corrects the flow of our sympathies by allowing for a curious imbalance in that part of the poem (lines 97-107) given to her complaints about the brevity of all human sorrow. It is as if even the proportions of the poem - its form and decorum - much less those of mourning, must be swelled out of proper shape by the wife's obsession with her grievances. The catalogue of her complaints is a symptom of how for her they have become a way of deadening a deeper grief too painful to be borne. Her list of grievances is no adequate metaphor, that is, for the grief she feels. All she can do is insist that " 'I won't have grief so,' " won't have it, that is, dissipated by the passage of time. In response, one might think of a poem called "Good Relief" never collected by Frost in any volume, in which he says that "No state has found a perfect cure for grief / In law, in gospel, or in root or herb." "Grief without grievance" - this, we have seen, was a dictum for Frost; the limits of sympathy were no less prescribed by the nature of things than were the limits of metaphor. A bit like the wife here was his sister Jeanie, as described in a letter of April 12, 1920, to Louis Untermeyer:
She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilitist. I must say she was pretty well broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war [World War I] was thought of. . . . She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn't find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. She included me in the unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad.
And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other peoples' troubles. But that's as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity (Thompson, Letters, p. 247).
The experience in the reading of the poem is that the wife's talk in this long peroration has a driven and dissociated quality with respect not only to the form of the poem but to the conversation going on in it. That is why the husband feels that she has somehow purged herself and that the "talk" will of itself have relieved her and the situation of a kind of swelling:
"There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won't go now. You're crying. Close the door.
The heart's gone out of it: why keep it up?
Amy! There's someone coming down the road!"
"You -- oh, you think the talk is all. I must go --
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you --
"If-you-do!" She was opening the door wider.
"Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will! --"
Clearly, she cannot say "it all" because her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal "extravagancy" on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness.
Besides being a moving and powerful human drama, "Home Burial" is about the limits, as revealed through the consciousness of these two unique people, of "home" as a place, a form, a mode of discourse in which often unmanageably extreme states of feeling occur. But if the limits are sad and terrifying, Frost seems nonetheless sure of their necessity. His decorums, he would have it, are consistent with reality and, if respected, can make life at least manageable. Violations of decorum in a poem or in any other formed relationship are a cause as well as a symptom of induced terror. "Poetry is measured in more senses than one," Frost wrote to Sidney Cox in September 1929. "It is measured feet, but more important still it is a measured amount of all we could say an we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short" (Thompson, Letters, p. 361). It could be said that the central subject of this poem is poetic form seen in the metaphor of domestic form - a debate between a husband and wife about how each "shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short." She claims that he has violated any possible decorums of grief by his lack of expressiveness. Hence, she "must get out of here" (line 37), "somewhere out of this house" (line 113) - this poem, too. He insists that she restrict her expression of grief to the house and to the boundaries of their marital contract, but he is in all this too peculiarly willful for her or for his own good. The poem ends on his exclamation " 'I will!' " Our only sure indication that she has by then gone through the door she has been gradually opening while they talk.
From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright Ó 1977 by Oxford University Press.
"Home Burial" may not be as popular as "Mending Wall" and "The Death of the Hired Man," but it is Frost's most critically acclaimed and intensively analyzed narrative. Again, Frost deals with barriers between peoplein this case a husband and wife who have recently lost their first child and who handle their grief in strikingly different waysaccording to their characters and expressive capacities. The locale is a New England farm with a family burial plot in the yard, illustrating familiarity with death, which partly accounts for the husband's taciturn handling of his grief. The poem opens with intense looking and severe gestures between the man and woman, as she gazes from a stairway window at the backyard grave of her recently dead child, defensively and accusatorially, both calling attention to herself and refusing her husband's concern for her grief. He seems not to have noticed the view from the window, but his tender description of the gravestones and the child's moundnot yet marked with a stoneshow that he is not unfeeling but that such family deaths have become an everyday part of his life. In the initial action the wife moves away from the husband and he pursues her with hesitating dominance, but her continued withdrawal is partly a provocation, which helps account for his protest that he's not allowed to grieve in his own way. Her desire for air and her explanation that perhaps his reaction is just masculine show that her criticism may not be strictly personal.
Struggling to restrain himself, the husband sits down, speaking and reflecting on the fact that his wife goes to other people with her troubles instead of discussing them with him. He is attempting reconciliation, but she continues to taunt him with words and actions, insisting that he can't say the right thing. He musingly half-apologizes for his ways and tries to account for their communication barrier by the difference between male and female. Tentatively offering to consider certain subjects off limits for them, he cleverly notes that such a tactic is necessary for strangers living together but not good for lovers. Again she makes a taunting gesture, and again he asks her not to take her grief to someone else but rather to share it with him. Still, he shows that he is reconciled to the child's death in a way she can't be, and she regards his view that their love casts a blessing on the lost child, and expresses a promise for the future, as a sneer at the reality of their loss. His repeated protest that he's not allowed to grieve in his own way leads her to a full-scale attack on what she takes to have been his grossly unfeeling burial of the child.
Here she projects her own insistence on his unfeelingness onto images of his burial activities, not seeing that he buried the child himself to maintain his intimacy with it, to make it a part of his past, and to work out his own griefs. The spade and the stains on his shoes, which she took for signs of indifference, show his bond to the processes of life and death, just as his everyday talk after digging the grave was a way of holding back pain. But he is either incapable of an analytic answer or too stubbornly proud to offer one, so instead of protesting that she misunderstands, he can only toss out grimly oblique anger. She revels in the fact that everyone must die alone, and sets herself up as a philosopher, condemning humanity's supposed insensitivity to everyone else's grief and proposing the impossible task of changing the world.
His assumption that she has talked out her grief and his concern with the possibility of being spied by a neighbor suggest either a stronger sense of privacy than his wife's or a superficial concern about the judgments of others. The wife's obsession suggests an inflated pride in something that distinguishes her from others. Her repeated assertion that she must get away shows that she doesn't really want a break with her husband, that she can see her way to internal change. His apparently irrational insistence that she tell where she's going so he can bring her back by force suggests that he knows she wants to be subdued or at least to have her irrationality brought back to earth. Each character evinces more sympathy than the other from some readers; Amy is sometimes seen as being over the edge of madness, and her husband is sometimes seen as self-righteously callous. The poem has some relationship to Elinor and Robert Frost's loss of their first child, and although the characters do not seem much like the poet and his wife, Frost may have put into them some of her tendency toward exaggeration and his own almost willful and defensive pretense that he does not understand things that he thinks are improper. A balanced view might be that the poem shows compassion for two different human types in view of not only their loss but also their covert insistence on and exaggeration of their differences.
from The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus
It one may use a metrical yardstick to evaluate a given speaker's control, then it becomes profitable to compare the dramatic speeches within, for example, "Home Burial, " where one crucial theme is the perceived failure of language to communicate adequately the bereaved couple's shared dilemma. Does one speaker show more control, and thus by extension for Frost, more good sense than the other? Neither of them, in fact, is said by the other to be able to use language authoritatively, and this, if it is true, condemns them both to ineffectuality. The husband "can't . . . speak of his own child he's lost" because his "words are nearly always an offense" (another pun, perhaps, as his words are barriers), and he can't ask the right question because, the wife says, he doesn't "know how to ask it." The wife is herself inarticulate with despair, and while she asserts that her husband has no right to talk because he doesn't "know how to speak," she herself knows that nothing she says will be sufficient. When her husband says to her, "There, you have said it all and you feel better, " she reacts with contempt: "You - oh, you think the talk is all. I must go -" Both of them use eleven- to twelve-syllable lines, which come in the context of the iambic pentameter base to represent a kind of spillage, a profligacy of language that, for them, is without its desired effect - to communicate their separate griefs. The wife uses about 10 percent more of these extrasyllabic lines, a difference that does not seem conclusive in establishing the husband's authority even as it suggests the direction of Frost's sympathies (of the husband's forty-nine lines, fifteen are extrasyllabic; of the wife's forty-one lines, seventeen are extrasyllabic). Thus the metrical virtuosity of the poet-narrator in lines like the appropriately eleven-syllable "She took a doubtful step and then undid it" is used by Frost within the dialogue to reveal the uncontrol and frustration of both husband and wife. Such uncontrived speech argues for their complete sincerity; neither has an agenda beyond personal need, neither defends an unreasonable position, and neither is capable of the rhetorical control demanded by irony.
. . . .
"Home Burial epitomizes Frost's intimate relationships between sex, death, and madness: that "a bedroom" - not, significantly, the bedroom by the husband's terms - and the graveyard are of the same size and shape suggests the geometrical precision by which desire becomes correlated with burial itself. The wife is in the process of leaving the house, crossing the threshold from marital asylum into freedom. The house is suffocating her. Her window view of the graveyard is not enough and is, in fact, a maddening reminder that she could not enter the earth with her son. With its transparent barrier, the window is a mockery of a widened vision throughout Frost's poetry and seems to incite escape rather than quelling it; in "Home Burial" the woman can "see" through the window and into the grave in a way her husband cannot, and the fear is driving her down the steps toward the door - "She was starting down - / Looking back over her shoulder at some fear" - even before she sees her husband. He threatens to follow his wife and bring her back by force, as if he is the cause of her leaving, but his gesture will be futile because it is based on the mistaken assumption that she is escaping him. Pathetically, he is merely an obstacle toward which she reacts at first dully and then with angry impatience; he has lost all authority and all power, a truth manifested most potently in his linguistic failures whereby he is reduced to the stuttering refrain, "A man can't speak...." Without language he is unmanned. He "think[s] the talk is all" and yet he cannot speak. He has become merely an animate part of the embattled household, but her real impetus for movement comes from the grave.
The house itself, reduced to a narrow passageway between the bedroom and the threshold and triangulated to the graveyard, is a correlative for the sexual tension generated by the man's preoccupation with his marital rights and the woman's rejection of them. He offers to "give up being a man" by binding himself "to keep hands off," but quite clearly their marriage is already sexually damaged and empty. That he makes this concession suggests that his wife has repulsed his sexual advances in the past: in this refusal she empowers herself, symbolically and literally rejecting the role as servant-wife by refusing to acknowledge the conjugal "rights" of the husband and by refusing to provide him with an heir. Her egress from the house will be symbolic verification of her husband's impotence, and if she leaves it and does not come back, the house will rot like the best birch fence will rot. Unfilled, without a woman with child, it will fall into itself, an image that recurs throughout Frost's poetry and suggests analogously Frost's sense that the poetic structure must be pushed taut by the erotic energy of its language. Thus the child's grave predicts the dissolution of household, a movement toward the open cellar of "The Generations of Men," almost a literal "home burial." Randall Jarrell explicates the grave-digging scene in "Home Burial" as perceived by the grieving mother: as if in a dream, she climbs the stairs and looks out to see her husband plunging his spade again and again into the earth. Then she walks down to see her husband's shoes stained with fresh earth, his spade standing against the wall in the entryway. Jarrell says, "Such things have a sexual force, a sexual meaning, as much in our waking hours as in our dreams.... When the plowman digs his plow into the earth, Mother Earth, to make her bear, this does not have a sexual appropriateness only in the dreams of neurotic patients - it is something we all understand, whether or not we admit we understand." "Home Burial," in its committing to earth the proof of a couple's sexual love, predicts a pattern of imagery, rich and ambivalent, that throughout Frost's poetry relates earth both to sexuality and to death. The grave, with its natural and domestic correlatives, becomes a remarkably potent conflation of the point at which desire and death merge into inextricable ecstasy and despair.
From Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite. Copyright Ó 1994 by Cambridge University Press. Reprinted with the permission of the author.
Karen L. Kilcup
Interestingly for our purposes, a central source of friction between the couple is the divergence between their self-conceptions, expressed in their different attitudes toward grief; while he mourns inwardly, she affirms the necessity of its outward expression. In her pain and anger she threatens him with her physical absence (her emotional absence is only too evident), yet, when she makes this threat, his real fears of sexual inadequacy surface: "'Amy! Don't go to someone else this time.'" What stands out for me at this moment--and elsewhere--is the duplicity of the language in which the husband couches his desire, for this line represents both plea and command. Furthermore, his words exhibit a wide veering from his behavior: "'Listen to me. I won't come down the stairs.' / He sat and fixed his chin between his fists. / 'There's something I should like to ask you, dear"' (emphasis added). Throughout the poem a language of endearment masks and conventionalizes the subverbal menace emblematized in his physical gestures. Echoing an issue that emerges differently in poems like "The Housekeeper" and "The Fear," Frost understands--only too well, perhaps-- the psychic weight carried by the threat physical violence embodied here by the husband, and his is deeply sensitive to the wife's vulnerability. If masculinity requires bodily supremacy, it also collides, however unwittingly, with psychological dominance. Yet the consequence of this dominance seems to be only greater alienation, sexual as well is emotional. . . . [T]he portrait of the husband on the verge of a violent brutishness both reflects and interrogates early-twentieth-century notions of muscular masculinity.
. . . .
In "Home Burial" we are left a capacious space in which to imagine the transformation of a prior intimacy into an utter fracture of relationship. As the husband reflects on his wife's kind of grief, he pleads, "You'd think his memory might be satisfied--," and she responds,
"There You go sneering now!"
"I'm not, I'm not!"
Frost breaks this line in the middle to suggest how profoundly at odds they are, how much psychic as well as literal space separates them. Once again, the relationship between the husband and wife's creativity emerges most clearly in language: his language wounds powerfully, and, however unwittingly, he, not she, is the metaphor-maker, the poet who speaks of fences when his heart aches. When the wife accuses, "'You can't because you don't know how to speak,"' she is unable to hear the pain and beauty in his lament: "'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build!"' We see a moment in which the poet urges and encodes the efficacy of language but only to an audience that can understand it--the reader willing to respond emotionally as much as intellectually. Frost acknowledges that Amy--like Elinor, perhaps--is confined by the literal creativity that her role as wife demands and by the emotions that such limitation imposes. Being only a place of "confinement" for her, home is too much where the heart is.
Working against the stereotype of the nostalgic regionalist idyll, Frost is especially critical of representations of home as merely a source of renewal and refuge. Amy is home-less, and the religion that sometimes filled the Frost household is echoed in her circumscription, in her repeated affirmations that she has to escape, get out, go, "'Somewhere out of this house."' She wonders, "'How can I make you--"' understand, we assume, but she is inadequate even to complete her sentence. The husband's "sentence" that concludes the poem--"I'll follow and bring you back by force. I will!"--represents both desperate plea and the final, overt expression of the menace that has underscored his speech throughout the poem. Structurally as well as semantically, the poem enacts the enclosure of the feminine self and feminine speech; to read this last line as merely desperate is seriously to underread the danger that the husband poses. Echoing the voice of cultural authority, he becomes both judge and author of his wife's fate: house arrest.
from Karen L. Kilcup. Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1988: 72, 75-76.
. . . In "Home Burial" a wife's angry reticence becomes a moral rebuke to what she perceives as her husband's brutal and selfish way of mourning the death of their first child; the gender hierarchy of civilized and uncivilized, ordered and chaotic, male and female, becomes remarkably fluid. The death of their child, one of the most disturbing possible events in a marriage and an undermining of a fundamental biological order, threatens the purpose of their relationship and reveals, instead of love, a void. The drama of their argument reveals the intensity of her personal interests beneath her mask of piety and the force of her husband's will beneath his postures of care and reasonableness. Their debate about the limits of grief becomes defined by gender and whether there is any common human ground on which to continue their relationship and a family.
Amy's declaration of the loneliness of death and others inability to grieve appears to conform to the Aristotelian view that excessive grief is "unmanly," associated with women who are closer to chaotic nature than men. . . . In "Home Burial" this ancient distinction becomes complicated. Amy remains impervious to fellow mourners and provides a powerful though flawed rebuke to her husband's grief and temporary control, which may be little more than the virtue of maintaining his own power within the home. Amy becomes the relentless idealist in a world of survival demands. . . .
Though "Home Burial" focuses on Amy's need to escape the confines of the house and marriage, we learn that her husband found some of his own escape outside the house digging his son's grave, no doubt a form of relief from his wife 's moral control. When the narrative begins, we find Amy in a position of metaphoric superiority, at the top of the stairs, silent and refusing her husband's gaze from the bottom. Her silence becomes a barrier she has created to torment her husband and force him into a confrontation with her fears, one of which is the physical force he exhibits as he "mounts" above her seeking to penetrate her reticence. The absence of question marks at the end of the husband's "questions" reveal the extent to which they are more accurately demands, if not threats:
She was first the object of his gaze, and one senses that her extra looks back were intended to offset his controlling stare. The narrator tells us that she was "looking back at some fear."
Here, as in "The Witch of Coos" or "The Fear," the woman's ability to reanimate fear, while seemingly irrational, serves an important moral role, to unsettle the complacency of civil and domestic control. . . . Amy has succeeded in rousing fear in her husband, sufficient fear for him to break his own barrier of silence and demand to know what it is she sees. She denies his ability to see, and she demeans him as imperceptive and crude, becoming a "blind creature." The husband, not Amy, has been reduced to brutishness and lower mental capacity.
The husband's response to the challenge reveals part of what Amy fears: she is being used as a childbearing intrument in her husband's house. The husband "frames" the family graveyard with the windowdiminishing its size and, figuratively its importturning it into a portrait in his family gallery. And he makes the terrifying analogy between the bedroom and the graveyard, revealing his own ability to lacerate Amy with but a few words. Love leads not only to death but to the memorial of his people:
He refers to his own relatives in an extraordinarily cold way, nuking an analogy between their persons, "broad-shouldered," and the "slabs." The "child's mound" remains the one as yet indeterminate part of the "family plot," to which Amy has become destined to contribute. Her pain and anger bear resemblance to the feelings and actions of Laban's third wife in "Place for a Third," as she refuses to be buried with the previous two and become another of his "children in a burial row." In the death of Amy's child she sees her own death and burial as part of his family story.
Having penetrated the mystery of her fear and revealed his own capacities for cruelty and his own less than elevated motives, she erects new barriers, pleading that he desist: "Don't, don't, don't, don't," as though her words portended violence. Retreating to a posture of male reason"Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?"the husband irritates Amy even more by referring to it as "his child." The underlying issue here on both sides is possession, self-interest, and control. She seizes control again by attacking his innate lack of ability to speak, a crudeness inherent in men: "I don't know rightly whether any man can" (rightly could refer both to her "knowledge" and to the ways of men). But I doubt that Amy believes that her husband does not know how to speak. His words and her silences speak powerfully of their individual and conflicting interests. Amy makes him dance, forcing him back on himself and demanding behavior that suits her interests. We wonder who the "someone else" was that Amy fled to after an earlier argumenta lover or comforter. No doubt Amy fears her husband's violence, revealed not only by her desire to leave the house but also by his promise not to come down the stairs:
The narrator's observation of the husband sitting with his "chin between his fists" calls attention ominously to physical force that might have been used in the past. Any wants her husband to bend to her demands, but she may also want to be independent of him altogether. The husband feels the strain of meeting his wifes demands of beauty, and, while he wants to please her, he also wants to remain true to his sense of self and purpose, which is inextricably bound up with his "being a man."
As soon as he asks to be "given a chance," he then veers to reducing her concerns to her sex, to her "mother-loss." Frustrated that he must "partly give up being a man / With women-folk," he suggests an "arrangement" by which hed "keep hands off" anything she might name. Language on her part has become not a source of miscommunication but, instead, a barrier that she can erect. But words alone may not be the only failure or offense. He may well be "hands on" in other ways that are terrifying. In a couplet riddled with negatives, what seems to be a plea for no barriers, he seems on the verge of recognizing that there is no love in their marriage, only fear and competing interests:
His maxim that "Two that don't love can't live together without them. / But two that do can't live together with them" indicates how little actual love exists without completing the dialectic with a child, both a bond and a barrier.
The husband feels the pressure of her moral judgment, pleading for her to talk about her grief "if it's something human," a phrase that barely conceals his anger at being reduced to a brute. Her sentimental unworldliness becomes to him just as inhuman. Both their excesses threaten to undermine the possibility of any domestic order and leave the question of what it means to be human balanced across gender lines:
He emphasizes Amy's grief as particular to her sex, a "mother-loss," even while wondering whether this way of grieving may not be innate but taught, something she was "brought up" to think. Referring to her upbringing reduces her to the status of a selfish child, one who does not recognize that sacrifice (or waste) is the essence of the larger scheme. Amy retaliates by reducing her husband to a brute, his logic nothing more than a "sneer."
In recounting his digging of their child's grave, Amy demonstrates her ability to speak and characterize in a way that reinforces her husband's lack of verbal ability and, thereby, his lack of humanity. Her portrait of him depicts a coarse unfeeling laborer, associated with dirt and "everyday concerns":
Richard Poirier notes the novelistic detail with which Amy recounts her husband's activity right down to "the stains on your shoes / Of fresh earth from your own baby's grave." More than detail, the hurling of the phrase "stains on your shoes" becomes a metaphor for her heaping sin on his soul. Her husband's response of laughing and accepting his curse echoes the urging of Job 's wife to "Curse God and die" (Job 2:9), only in this situation the wife has replaced God as the moral authority. The husband feels cursed both by the loss of a child as well as his inability to make his wife understand him, something she attributes to the innate qualities of his sex.
Amy's interpretation of her husband's words in the kitchen reveals, ironically, that her husband may be far more subtle and sophisticated in expressing himself than she understands. Her question is really an accusation, and she believes not only that he would not care but that he is fundamentally incapable of caring:
She takes his saying "Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build" quite literally as some musing about the weather and fence building and fails to recognize the power of his own metaphor. The time it takes for a birch to rot represents the husband's naturalistic way of talking about what his loss means and has everything to do with what is in "the darkened parlor." Amy thinks in terms of civilization and parlor culture, her husband in terms of survival against the natural decay of elements. The birch fence is, like the child, a barrier between the threatening environment and his future as well as a barrier between himself and Amy.
Amy charges that her husband and the world are "evil" because they cannot grieve sufficiently, cannot follow the dead into the beyond. The inescapable self-interest of all human beings, or at least her husband, leads her far into the position of an ascetic Christian's denial of the world, one that would make life impossible:
Her eloquent expression of despair"from the time when one is sick to death, / One is alone, and he dies more alone"reverses Jesus' words in John 11 after the resurrection of Lazarus: "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the son of God might be glorified thereby." Her despair denies a facile Christianity and affirms the necessity of a heroic existential suffering similar to what Kierkegaard described in The Sickness unto Death as evidence of man's ascendancy over beast: . . . Amy comes close, then, to sounding like a representative not of nature but of Christian philosophy and its assertion of the distinction of man from other creatures. She sees her own being "sick to death," a sickness that is unending because "To be saved from this sickness by death is an impossibility, for the sickness and its tormentand deathare precisely to be unable to die." Though powerful, Amy's stance renders family survival impossible, a form of immoral purity as it attempts to transcend the demands of survival. She may not sound like Antigone or Cordelia, but her piety may be at least as damaging as theirs.
Her attitude describes a crisis in civilization that Freud commented on in "Our Attitude toward Death" (1915), published the year after North of Boston; "Consideration for the dead, who no longer need it, is dearer to us than the truth, and certainly, for most of us, is dearer also than concern for the living." Freud and Frost challenge Christian culture to conform to a conception of truth provided by science, one in which the demands of survival reign. Amy refuses to conform to manly and scientific conceptions of the limits of grief, and her war with her husband is an attempt to make the world conform to her standards and accept her authority: "I won't have grief so / If I can change it. Oh, I won't, I won't!" Her husband must realize that failure to meet her demands will result in the dissolution of the home and his concern for furthering his people.
In treating her complaint as a form of therapy, her husband condescends to her and makes her pain seem just talk. For her to give in would be to give up being who she is, and she pushes her threat beyond "talk." Her husband's lack of tender love and rationality is unmasked in the final exchange, as her refusals push him to threaten force to keep her. Her "I won't" is met with a decidedly passionate "I will":
The proliferation of dashes in the last two parts indicates a world of emotional reality beyond words, a world that is actively, physically threatening. The dash after "will!" indicates that she has escaped the house and brought him to taking action. The drama lacks closure or "settling down," but this ambiguity is precisely what reveals the power struggle lurking beneath moral and ethical positions.
The line between grief and madness is a fine one, and Amys desire to escape can be seen as a response to the suffocation of servitude.
from Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Copyright © 1997 by the University of Michigan.
In "Home Burial" we have an arena reduced to a staircase, with its Hitchcockian banister. The opening line tells you as much about the actors’ positions as about their roles: those of the hunter and his prey. Or, as you’ll see later, of Pygmalion and Galatea, except that in this case the sculptor turns his living model into stone. In the final analysis, "Home Burial" is a love poem, and if only on these grounds it qualifies as a pastoral. But let’s examine this line and a half
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him
Frost could have stopped right here. It is already a poem, it is already a drama. Imagine this line and a half sitting on the page all by itself, in minimalist fashion. It’s an extremely loaded scene—or, better yet, a frame. You’ve got an enclosure, the house, with two individuals at cross--no, diverse--purposes. He’s at the bottom of the stairs, she’s at the top. He’s looking up at her, she, for all we know thus far, doesn’t register his presence at all. Also, you’ve got to remember that it’s in black and white. The staircase dividing them suggests a hierarchy of significances. It is a pedestal with her atop (at least, in his eyes) and him at the bottom (in our eyes and, eventually, in hers). The angle is sharp. Place yourself here in either position—better in his—and you’ll see what I mean. Imagine yourself observing, watching somebody, or imagine yourself being watched. Imagine yourself interpreting someone’s movements—or immobility—unbeknownst to that person. That’s what turns you into a hunter, or into Pygmalion.
So let’s watch the deportment of the model
She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again.
On the literal level, on the level of straight narrative, we have the heroine beginning to descend the steps with her head turned to us in profile, her glance lingering on some frightful sight. She hesitates and interrupts her descent, her eyes still trained, presumably, on the same sight neither on the steps nor on the man at the bottom. But you are aware of yet another level present here, aren’t you?
Let’s leave that level as yet unnamed. Each piece of information in this narrative comes to you in an isolated manner, within a pentameter line. The isolation job is done by white margins framing, as it were, the whole scene, like the silence of the house, and the lines themselves are the staircase. Basically, what you get here is a succession of frames. "She was starting down" is one frame. "Looking back over her shoulder at some fear" is another, in fact, it is a close-up, a profile—you see her facial expression. "She took a doubtful step and then undid it" is a third again a close-up—the feet. "To raise herself and look again" is a fourth—full figure.
But this is a ballet, too. There is a minimum of two pas de deux here, conveyed to you with a wonderful euphonic, almost alliterative precision. I mean the ds in this line, in "doubtful" and in "undid it," although the ts matter also. "Undid it" is particularly good, because you sense the spring in that step. And that profile in its opposition to the movement of the body—the very formula of a dramatic heroine—is straight out of a ballet as well.
But the real faux pas de deux starts with "He spoke / Advancing toward her." For the next twenty-five lines, a conversation occurs on the stairs. The man climbs them as he speaks, negotiating mechanically and verbally what separates them. "Advancing" bespeaks self-consciousness and apprehensiveness. The tension grows with the growing proximity. However, the mechanical and, by implication, physical proximity is more easily attained than the verbal—i e , the mental—and that’s what the poem is all about. "’What is it you see / From up there always?--for I want to know’" is very much a Pygmalion question, addressed to the model on the pedestal atop the staircase. His fascination is not with what he sees but with what he imagines it conceals—what he has placed there. He invests her with mystery and then rushes to uncloak it: this rapacity is always Pygmalion’s double bind. It is as though the sculptor found himself puzzled by the facial expression of his model: she "sees" what he does not "see." So he has to climb to the pedestal himself, to put himself in her position. In the position of "up there always"—of topographical (vis-à-vis the house) and psychological advantage, where he put her himself. It is the latter, the psychological advantage of the creation, that disturbs the creator, as the emphatic "‘for I want to know’" shows.
The model refuses to cooperate. In the next frame ("She turned and sank upon her skirts at that"), followed by the close-up of "And her face changed from terrified to dull," you get that lack of cooperation plain. Yet the lack of cooperation here is cooperation. The less you cooperate, the more you are a Galatea. For we have to bear in mind that the woman’s psychological advantage is in the man’s self-projection. He ascribes it to her. So by turning him down she only enhances his fantasy. In this sense, by refusing to cooperate she plays along. That’s basically her whole game here. The more he climbs, the greater is that advantage, he pushes her into it, as it were, with every step.
Still, he is climbing: in "he said to gain time" he does, and also in
"What is it you see?"
Mounting until she cowered under him.
"I will find out now—you must tell me, dear
The most important word here is the verb "see," which we encounter for the second time. In the next nine lines, it will be used four more times. We’ll get to that in a minute. But first let’s deal with this "mounting" line and the next. It’s a masterly job here. With "mounting," the poet kills two birds at once, for "mounting" describes both the climb and the climber. And the climber looms even larger, because the woman "cowers"—i.e , shrinks under him. Remember that she looks "at some fear." "Mounting" versus "cowered" gives you the contrast, then, between their respective frames, with the implicit danger contained in his largeness. In any case, her alternative to fear is not comfort. And the resoluteness of "’I will find out now’" echoes the superior physical mass, not alleviated by the cajoling "dear" that follows a remark—"’you must tell me’"—that is both imperative and conscious of this contrast.
[quotes ll. 13-20]
And now we come to this verb "see." Within fifteen lines it’s been used six times. Every experienced poet knows how risky it is to use the same word several times within a short space. The risk is that of tautology. So what is it that Frost is after here? I think he is after precisely that tautology. More accurately, non-semantic utterance. Which you get, for instance, in "’Oh,’ and again, ‘Oh.’" Frost had a theory about what he called "sentence-sounds." It had to do with his observation that the sound, the tonality, of human locution is as semantic as actual words. For instance, you overhear two people conversing behind a closed door, in a room. You don’t hear the words, yet you know the general drift of their dialogue; in fact, you may pretty accurately figure out its substance. In other words, the tune matters more than the lyrics, which are, so to speak, replaceable or redundant. Anyway, the repetition of this or that word liberates the tune, makes it more audible. By the same token, such repetition liberates the mind—rids you of the notion presented by the word. (This is the old Zen technique, of course, but, come to think of it, finding it in an American poem makes you wonder whether philosophical principles don’t spring from texts rather than the other way around.)
The six "see"s here do precisely that. They exclaim rather than explain. It could be "see," it could be "Oh," it could be "yes," it could be any monosyllabic word. The idea is to explode the verb from within, for the content of the actual observation defeats the process of observation, its means, and the very observer. The effect that Frost tries to create is the inadequacy of response when you automatically repeat the first word that comes to your tongue. "Seeing" here is simply reeling from the unnameable. The least seeing our hero does is in "‘Just that I see,’" for by this time the verb, having already been used four times, is robbed of its "observing" and "understanding" meaning (not to mention the fact— draining the word even further of content—that we readers are ourselves still in the dark, still don’t know what there is to see out that window). By now, it is just sound, denoting an animal response rather than a rational one.
This sort of explosion of bona-fide words into pure, non-semantic sounds will occur several times in the course of this poem. Another happens very soon, ten lines later. Characteristically, these explosions occur whenever the players find themselves in close physical proximity. They are the verbal—or, better yet, the audial—equivalents of a hiatus. Frost directs them with tremendous consistency, suggesting his characters’ profound (at least, prior to this scene) incompatibility. "Home Burial" is, in fact, the study of that, and on the literal level the tragedy it describes is the characters’ comeuppance for violating each other’s territorial and mental imperatives by having a child. Now that the child is lost, the imperatives play themselves out with vehemence they claim their own.
By standing next to the woman, the man acquires her vantage point. Because he is larger than she, and also because this is his house (as line 23 shows), where he has lived, presumably, most of his life, he must, one imagines, bend somewhat to put his eyes on her line of vision. Now they are next to each other, in an almost intimate proximity, on the threshold of their bedroom, atop the stairs. The bedroom has a window, a window has a view. And here Frost produces the most stunning simile of this poem, and perhaps of his entire career:
[quotes ll. 20-30]
"‘The little graveyard where my people are’" generates an air of endearment, and it’s with this air that "‘So small the window frames the whole of it’" starts, only to tumble itself into "‘Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?’" The key word here is "frames," because it doubles as the window’s actual frame and as a picture on a bedroom wall. The window hangs, as it were, on the bedroom wall like a picture, and that picture depicts a graveyard. "Depicting," though, means reducing to the size of a picture. Imagine having that in your bedroom. In the next line, though, the graveyard is restored to its actual size and, for that reason, equated with the bedroom. This equation is as much psychological as it is spatial. Inadvertently, the man blurts out the summary of the marriage (foreshadowed in the grim pun of the title). And, equally inadvertently, the "is it?" invites the woman to agree with this summary, almost implying her complicity.
As if that were not enough, the next two lines, with their stones of slate and marble, proceed to reinforce the simile, equating the graveyard with the made-up bed, with its pentametrically arranged pillows and cushions—populated by a family of small, inanimate children. "Broad-shouldered little slabs." This is Pygmalion unbound, on a rampage. What we have here is the man’s intrusion into the woman’s mind, a violation of her mental imperative—if you will, an ossification of it. And then this ossifying hand—petrifying, actually—stretches toward what’s still raw, palpably as well as in her mind:
"But I understand it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound—"
It’s not that the contrast between the stones and the mound is too stark, though it is, it is his ability—or, rather, his attempt—to articulate it that she finds unbearable. For, should he succeed, should he find the words to articulate her mental anguish, the mound will join the stones in the "picture," will become a slab itself, will become a pillow of their bed. Moreover, this will amount to the total penetration of her inner sanctum that of her mind. And he is getting there:
[quotes ll. 30-35]
The poem is gathering its dark force. Four "don’t"s are that non-semantic explosion, resulting in hiatus. We are so much in the story line now—up to the eyebrows—that we may forget that this is still a ballet, still a succession of frames, still an artifice, stage-managed by the poet. In fact, we are about to take sides with our characters, aren’t we? Well, I suggest we pull ourselves out of this by our eyebrows and think for a moment about what it all tells us about our poet. Imagine, for instance, that the story line has been drawn from experience— from, say, the loss of a firstborn. What does all that you’ve read thus far tell you about the author, about his sensibility? How much he is absorbed by the story and—what’s more crucial—to what degree he is free from it?
Were this a seminar, I’d wait for your answers. Since it is not, I’ve got to answer this question myself And the answer is: He is very free. Dangerously so. The very ability to utilize—to play with—this sort of material suggests an extremely wide margin of detachment. The ability to turn this material into a blank-verse, pentameter monotone adds another degree to that detachment. To observe a relation between a family graveyard and a bedroom’s fourposter—still another. Added up, they amount to a considerable degree of detachment. A degree that dooms human interplay, that makes communication impossible, for communication requires an equal.
Remember the hiatus, and what causes it, and remember that this is an artifice. Actually, the author himself reminds you of it with
She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs . . .
It is still a ballet, you see, and the stage direction is incorporated into the text. The most telling detail here is the banister. Why does the author put it here? First, to reintroduce the staircase, which we might by now have forgotten about, stunned by the business of ruining the bedroom. But, secondly, the banister prefigures her sliding downstairs, since every child uses banisters for sliding down. "And turned on him with such a daunting look" is another stage direction:
He said twice over before he knew himself:
"Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?"
Now, this is a remarkably good line. It has a distinctly vernacular, almost proverbial air. And the author is definitely aware of how good it is. So, trying both to underscore its effectiveness and to obscure his awareness of it, he emphasizes the unwittingness of this utterance: "He said twice over before he knew himself."
This whole section of the poem, from "‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t’" on, obviously has some sexual connotations, of her turning the man down. That’s what the story of Pygmalion and his model is all about. On the literal level, "Home Burial" evolves along similar "hard to get" lines. However, I don’t think that Frost, for all his autonomy, was conscious of that. (After all, North of Boston shows no acquaintance with Freudian terminology.) And, if he was not, this sort of approach on our part is invalid. Nevertheless, we should bear some of it in mind as we are embarking on the bulk of this poem:
[quotes ll. 36-44]
What we’ve got here is the desire to escape: not so much the man as the enclosure of the place, not to mention the subject of their exchange. Yet the resolution is incomplete, as the fidgeting with the hat shows, since the execution of this desire will be counterproductive for the model as far as being the subject of explication goes. May I go so far as to suggest that that would mean a loss of advantage, not to mention that it would be the end of the poem? In fact, it does end with precisely that, with her exit. The literal level will get into conflict, or fusion, with the metaphorical. Hence "‘I don’t know rightly whether any man can,’" which fuses both these levels, forcing the poem to proceed, you don’t know any longer who is the horse here, who is the cart. I doubt whether the poet himself knew that at this point. The fusion’s result is the release of a certain force, which subordinates his pen, and the best it can do is keep both strands— literal and metaphorical—in check.
We learn the heroine’s name, and that this sort of discourse had its precedents, with nearly identical results. Given the fact that we know the way the poem ends, we may judge—well, we may imagine—the character of those occasions. The scene in "Home Burial" is but a repetition. By this token, the poem doesn’t so much inform us about their life as replace it. We also learn, from "‘Don’t go to someone else this time,’" about a mixture of jealousy and sense of shame felt by at least one of them. And we learn, from "‘I won’t come down the stairs’" and from "He sat and fixed his chin between his fists," about the fear of violence present in their physical proximity. The latter line is a wonderful embodiment of stasis, very much in the fashion of Rodin’s Penseur, albeit with two fists, which is a very telling self-referential detail, since the forceful application of fist to chin is what results in a knockout.
The main thing here, though, is the reintroduction of the stairs. Not only the literal stairs but the steps in "he sat," too. From now on, the entire dialogue occurs on the stairs, though they have become the scene of an impasse rather than a passage. No physical steps are taken. Instead, we have their verbal, or oral, substitute. The ballet ends, yielding to the verbal advance and retreat, which is heralded by "’There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’" Note again the air of cajoling, colored this time with the recognition of its futility in "dear." Note also the last semblance of actual interplay in "‘You don’t know how to ask it.’ ‘Help me, then’"—this last knocking on the door, or, better yet, on the wall. Note "Her fingers moved the latch for all reply," because this feint of trying for the door is the last physical movement, the last theatrical or cinematic gesture in the poem, save one more latch-trying.
[quotes ll. 45-56]
The speaker’s hectic mental pacing is fully counterbalanced by his immobility. If this is a ballet, it is a mental one. In fact, it’s very much like fencing not with an opponent or a shadow but with one’s self. The lines are constantly taking a step forward and then undoing it ("She took a doubtful step and then undid it.") The main technical device here is enjambment, which physically resembles descending the stairs. In fact, this back-and-forth, this give-and-take almost gives you a sense of being short of breath. Until, that is, the release that is coming with the formulaic, folksy "’A man must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.’"
After this release, you get three lines of more evenly paced verse, almost a tribute to iambic pentameter’s proclivity for coherence, ending with the pentametrically triumphant "‘Though I don’t like such things ‘twixt those that love.’" And here our poet makes another not so subdued dash toward the proverbial: "‘Two that don’t love can’t live together without them / But two that do can’t live together with them’"—though this comes off as a bit cumbersome, and not entirely convincing.
Frost partly senses that: hence "She moved the latch a little." But that’s only one explanation. The whole point of this qualifier-burdened monologue is the explication of its addressee. The man is groping for understanding. He realizes that in order to understand he’s got to surrender—if not suspend entirely—his rationality. In other words, he descends. But this is really running down stairs that lead upward. And, partly from rapidly approaching the end of his wits, partly out of purely rhetorical inertia, he summons here the notion of love. In other words, this quasi-proverbial two-liner about love is a rational argument, and that, of course, is not enough for its addressee.
For the more she is explicated, the more remote she gets the higher her pedestal grows (which is perhaps of specific importance to her now that she is downstairs). It’s not grief that drives her out of the house but the dread of being explicated, as well as of the explicator himself. She wants to stay impenetrable and won’t accept anything short of his complete surrender. And he is well on the way to it:
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human."
The last is the most stunning, most tragic line, in my view, in the entire poem. It amounts practically to the heroine’s ultimate victory—i.e , to the aforementioned rational surrender on the part of the explicator. For all its colloquial air, it promotes her mental operations to supernatural status, thus acknowledging infinity—ushered into her mind by the child’s death—as his rival. Against this he is powerless, since her access to that infinity, her absorption by and commerce with it, is backed in his eyes by the whole mythology of the opposite sex—by the whole notion of the alternative being impressed upon him by her at this point rather thoroughly. That’s what he is losing her to by staying rational. It is a shrill, almost hysterical line, admitting the man’s limitations and momentarily bringing the whole discourse to a plane of regard that the heroine could be at home on
—the one she perhaps seeks. But only momentarily. He can’t proceed at this level, and succumbs to pleading:
[quotes ll. 59-66]
He tumbles down, as it were, from the hysterical height of "’Tell me about it if it’s something human.’"
But this tumble, this mental knocking about the metrically lapsing stairs, restores him to rationality, with all its attendant qualifiers. That brings him rather close to the heart of the matter—to her taking her "‘mother-loss of a first child / So inconsolably’"—and he evokes the catchall notion of love again, this time somewhat more convincingly, though still tinged with a rhetorical flourish: "‘in the face of love.’" The very word—"love"— undermines its emotional reality, reducing the sentiment to its utilitarian application as a means of overcoming tragedy. However, overcoming tragedy deprives its victim of the status of hero or heroine. This, combined with the resentment over the explicator’s lowering of his explication’s plane of regard, results in the heroine’s interruption of "‘You’d think his memory might be satisfied—’" with "‘There you go sneering now!’" It’s Galatea’s self-defense, the defense against the further application of the chiseling instrument to her already attained features.
Because of its absorbing story line, there is a strong temptation to bill "Home Burial" as a tragedy of incommunicability, a poem about the failure of language, and many have succumbed to this temptation. In fact, it is just the reverse: it is a tragedy of communication, for communication’s logical end is the violation of your interlocutor’s mental imperative. This is a poem about language’s terrifying success, for language, in the final analysis, is alien to the sentiments it articulates. No one is more aware of that than a poet, and if "Home Burial" is autobiographical, it is so in the first place by revealing Frost’s grasp of the collision between his métier and his emotions. To drive this point home, may I suggest that you compare the actual sentiment you may feel toward an individual in your company and the word "love." A poet is doomed to resort to words. So is the speaker in "Home Burial." Hence, their overlapping in this poem; hence, too, its autobiographical reputation.
But let us take it a step further. The poet here should be identified not with one character but with both. He is the man here, all right, but he is the woman also. Thus you’ve got a clash: not just of two sensibilities but of two languages. Sensibilities may merge—say, in the act of love; languages can’t. Sensibilities may result in a child, languages won’t. And, now that the child is dead, what’s left is two totally autonomous languages, two non-overlapping systems of verbalization. In short, words. His versus hers, and hers are fewer. This makes her enigmatic. Enigmas are subject to explication, which they resist— in her case, with all she’s got. His job, or, more exactly, the job of his language, is, therefore, the explication of her language, or, more exactly, her reticence. Which, when it comes to human interplay, is a recipe for disaster. When it comes to a poem, an enormous challenge.
Small wonder, then, that this "dark pastoral" grows darker with every line; it proceeds by aggravation, reflecting not so much the complexity of the author’s mind as words’ own appetite for disaster. For the more you push reticence, the greater it gets, having nothing to fall back upon but itself. The enigma thus grows bigger.
[quotes ll. 71-90]
This is the voice of a very foreign territory indeed: a foreign language. It is a view of the man from a distance he can’t possibly fathom, since it is proportionate to the frequency with which the heroine creeps up and down the stairs. Which, in its own right, is proportionate to the leaps of his gravel in the course of his digging the grave. Whatever the ratio, it is not in favor of his actual or mental steps toward her on that staircase. Nor in his favor is the rationale behind her creeping up and down the stairs while he is digging. Presumably, there is nobody else around to do the job. (That they lost their firstborn suggests that they are fairly young and thus not very well off.) Presumably also, by performing this menial task, and by doing it in a particularly mechanical way—as a remarkably skillful mimetic job in the pentameter here indicates (or as is charged by the heroine)—the man is quelling, or controlling, his grief, that is, his movements, unlike the heroine’s, are functional.
In short, this is futility’s view of utility. For obvious reasons, this view is usually precise and rich in judgment: "‘If you had any feelings,’" and "‘Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly / And roll back down the mound beside the hole.’" Depending on the length of observation—and the description of digging runs here for nine lines—this view may result, as it does here, in a sensation of utter disparity between the observer and the observed: "‘I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.’" For observation, you see, results in nothing, while digging produces at least a mound, or a hole. Whose mental equivalent in the observer is also, as it were, a grave. Or, rather, a fusion of the man and his purpose, not to mention his instrument. What futility and Frost’s pentameter register here above all is rhythm. The heroine observes an inanimate machine. The man in her eye is a gravedigger, and thus her alternative.
Now, the sight of our alternative is always unwelcome, not to say threatening. The closer your view of it, the sharper your general sense of guilt and of a deserved comeuppance. In the mind of a woman who has lost her child, that sense may be fairly sharp. Add to that her inability to translate her grief into any useful action, save a highly agitated creeping up and down, as well as the recognition—and subsequent glorification—of that inability. And add a cross-purpose correspondence between her movements and his: between her steps and his spade What do you think it would result in? And remember that she is in his house, that this is the graveyard where his people are. And that he is a gravedigger.
"Then you came in I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes."
Note this "and I don’t know why," for here she unwittingly drifts toward her own projection. All that she needs now is to check that projection with her own eyes. That is, she wants to make her mental picture physical.
"You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it."
So what do you think she sees with her own eyes, and what does that sight prove? What does the frame contain this time? What does she have a close-up of? I am afraid she sees a murder weapon: she sees a blade. The fresh earth stains either on the shoes or on his spade make the spade’s edge shine: make it into a blade. And does earth "stain," however fresh? Her very choice of noun, denoting liquid, suggests—accuses—blood. What should our man have done? Should he have taken his shoes off before entering the house? Perhaps. Perhaps he should have left his spade outside, too. But he is a farmer, and acts like one—presumably out of fatigue. So he brings in his instrument—in her eyes, the instrument of death. And the same goes for his shoes, and it goes for the rest of the man. A gravedigger is equated here, if you will, with the reaper. And there are only the two of them in this house.
The most awful bit is "for I saw," because it emphasizes the perceived symbolism of that spade left standing against the wall outside there in the entry: for future use. Or as a guard. Or as an unwitting memento mori. At the same time, "for I saw it" conveys the capriciousness of her perception and the triumph of somebody who cannot be fooled, the triumph of catching the enemy. It is futility in full bloom, engulfing and absorbing utility into its shadow.
"I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed."
This is practically a nonverbal recognition of defeat, coming in the form of a typical Frostian understatement, studded with tautological monosyllables quickly abandoning their semantic functions. Our Napoleon or Pygmalion is completely routed by his creation, who still keeps pressing on.
"I can repeat the very words you were saying:
‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?"
Now, this is where our poem effectively ends. The rest is simply denouement, in which our heroine goes rambling on in an increasingly incoherent fashion about death, the world being evil, uncaring friends, and feeling alone. It is a rather hysterical monologue, whose only function, in terms of the story line, is to struggle toward a release for what has been pent up in her mind. It does not, and in the end she resorts to the door, as though only landscape were proportionate to her mental state and thus could be of solace.
So what was it that he was after in this, his very own poem? He was, I think, after grief and reason, which, while poison to each other, are language’s most efficient fuel—or, if you will, poetry’s indelible ink. Frost’s reliance on them here and elsewhere almost gives you the sense that his dipping into this ink pot had to do with the hope of reducing the level of its contents, you detect a sort of vested interest on his part. Yet the more one dips into it, the more it brims with this black essence of existence, and the more one’s mind, like one’s fingers, gets soiled by this liquid. For the more there is of grief, the more there is of reason. As much as one may be tempted to take sides in "Home Burial," the presence of the narrator here rules this out, for while the characters stand, respectively, for reason and for grief, the narrator stands for their fusion. To put it differently, while the characters’ actual union disintegrates, the story, as it were, marries grief to reason, since the bond of the narrative here supersedes the individual dynamics—well, at least for the reader. Perhaps for the author as well. The poem, in other words, plays fate.
If this poem is dark, darker still is the mind of its maker, who plays all three roles the man, the woman, and the narrator. Their equal reality, taken separately or together, is still inferior to that of the poem’s author, since "Home Burial" is but one poem among many. The price of his autonomy is, of course, in its coloration, and perhaps what you ultimately get out of this poem is not its story but the vision of its ultimately autonomous maker. The characters and the narrator are, as it were, pushing the author out of any humanly palatable context: he stands outside, denied re-entry, perhaps not coveting it at all. This is the dialogue’s—alias the Life Force’s— doing And this particular posture, this utter autonomy, strikes me as utterly American. Hence this poet’s monotone, his pentametric drawl a signal from a far-distant station. One may liken him to a spacecraft that, as the downward pull of gravity weakens, finds itself nonetheless in the grip of a different gravitational force: outward. The fuel, though, is still the same’ grief and reason. The only thing that conspires against this metaphor of mine is that American spacecraft usually return.
From Homage to Robert Frost by Joseph Brodsky, Seamus Heaney, Derek Walcott. New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1996. © The Estate of Joseph Brodsky.
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