Home Burial Essay, Research Paper
The Depths of Hurt in Home Burial
Home Burial is a long narrative poem told in Robert Frost s conversational, very free blank verse. This means that the general structure of the lines is unrhymed iambic pentameter — the same meter that much of Shakespeare s work is written in — which classically consists of five pairs of alternately stressed syllables, with the stress on the second syllable of each pair; a pure example would be the second line of this poem, BeFORE/ she SAW/ him, SHE/ was STAR/ing DOWN . However, there are few lines in Frost s poem which are metrically this pure, for the simple reason that people really don t talk like that, and Frost is attempting to give the impression of speech within the constraints of poetry.
The meter is important in this poem, because it gives Home Burial a formalism and at the same time a straining away from that formalism that is echoed in the poem itself. In this case the poem revolves around the formalism that surrounds our public display of grief, versus the ragged and anguished healing process that must be done from within.
The unnamed couple in this poem have lost a baby to death. The mother grieves openly, and it could be said that she has never recovered from this loss; bereaved parents never forget, but most people in this position gradually work out a way of dealing with their grief, and go on with their lives. This the young mother cannot do. The baby is buried in the family graveyard which is visible from an upstairs window of their house. Every time the mother passes the window, her grief wells up anew.
But another emotion wells up as well — anger and bitterness at her husband, which is at first unexplained. Our first intimation of the rift between them shows up on line ten, when she cowered beneath him , and immediately after that, in lines twelve to thirteen, she refused him any help,/ with the least stiffening of her neck and silence. Their dialogue is cold and antagonistic: What is it — what? Just that I see. You don t. Tell me what it is (lines 18-19).
It would seem, on first glance, that the wife is just a bit unbalanced, but soon we see there is more to it. In the husband s first two lines as well as his very last one, his attitude toward his wife is domineering and seemingly insensitive. First he tells her he wants to know what she keeps looking at through the window; then he tells her she must tell him. Even the fact that he softens this last demand with a tacked-on dear , doesn t make it feel like any less of a demand. And at the very end of the poem, he asks, Where do you mean to go? First tell me that./ I ll follow and bring you back by force. I will! In between he seems sincerely anxious to learn how to communicate with his wife, and he asks for her help, but there is a tremendous wall of resentment in her way.
The husband is obviously a man who is used to getting his own way, and not used to dealing with other people. The wife, on the other hand, is going through an extremely difficult time emotionally and needs an unusually large amount of support and compassion, which she does not feel she is getting from her inarticulate husband. Twice during the poem she starts to leave the house, and twice the husband delays her, asking her not to go to someone else this time (lines 39 and 57). At first the reader might assume she is having an affair, but in the context of the poem it seems more likely that she is simply going to a friend s or relative s, probably a woman, to discuss with them the topic she cannot bring herself to broach with her own husband.
At last the wall of silence breaks down, and we learn why she is so angry at him. After the baby died, the father went out and dug a little grave in the family plot. The mother watched from the window as he made 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 (lines 75-79). He was digging his child s grave in as sprightly a manner as if he were planting a tree, and then he returned to the house with what seemed to the mother an offhand remark about the effects of damp on birch trees.
But let s look specifically at what he did say, for in those lines lies the whole crux of the poem. After he dug his child s grave, he came inside and said, Three foggy mornings and one rainy day/ Will rot the best birch fence a man can build (lines 92-93). This remark was not offhand at all; it was closely related to his remark a few lines earlier in the poem, I m cursed. God, if I don t believe I m cursed (line 90). What the husband is saying is that he had planted a seed — his child — that seemed to be growing well; he had invested his very heart and soul and dreams in that child s future; he had built it well, but an act of God had inexplicably taken it away. The only way this close-mouthed farmer had of expressing such a truth was through the metaphor of farming, and his wife, whose metaphors were different, didn t understand. She assumed that if he could only talk about farming at such a time, he didn t care about his child, or her either. She was wrong.
One would expect that after a revelation of this type, all would be well between the two bereaved parents, and they would be able to help each other work out their grief. But there is still too much hurt behind their separate modes of grieving. In the last stanza the wife is still preparing to leave, and the husband has returned to the threatening mode with which he began the poem. Home Burial , whose title reflects not only the baby s literal burial but the burial of so much passion and feeling, does not have a happy ending after all.
Source of Poem:
Frost, Robert. Home Burial , from The Poetry of Robert Frost, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, NY, 1969, p. 51-55.