Home Burial – Robert Frost

Home Burial – Robert Frost
The poem presents a few moments of charged dialogue in a strained relationship between a rural
husband and wife who have lost a child. The woman is distraught after catching sight of the child’s
grave through the window—and more so when her husband doesn’t immediately recognise the cause
of her distress. She tries to leave the house; he importunes her to stay, for once, and share her grief
with him—to give him a chance. He doesn’t understand what it is he does that offends her or why she
should grieve outwardly so long. She resents him deeply for his composure, what she sees as his hardheartedness. She vents some of her anger and frustration, and he receives it, but the distance between
them remains. She opens the door to leave, as he calls after her.
This is a dramatic lyric—“dramatic” in that, like traditional drama, it presents a continuous scene and
employs primarily dialogue rather than narrative or description. It is dramatic, too, in its subject
matter—“dramatic” in the sense of “emotional” or “tense.” Form fits content well in this poem: One
can easily imagine two actors onstage portraying this brief, charged scene. Rhythmically, Frost
approaches pure speech—and some lines, taken out of context, sound as prosaic as anything. For
example, line 6 2 : “I do think, though, you overdo it a little.” Generally, there are five stressed syllables
per line, although (as in line 6 2 ), they are not always easy to scan with certainty. Stanza breaks occur
where quoted speech ends or begins.
Pay special attention to the tone, vocabulary, and phrasing of the dialogue. At the time of its
publication, “Home Burial” represented a truly new poetic genre: an extended dramatic exercise in
the natural speech rhythms of a region’s people, from the mouths of common, yet vivid, characters.
“Home Burial” is one of Frost’s most overtly sad poems. There are at least two tragedies here: the
death of a child, which antecedes the poem, and the collapse of a marriage, which the poem
foreshadows. “Home Burial” is about grief and grieving, but most of all it seems to be about the
breakdown and limits of communication.
The husband and the wife represent two very different ways of grieving. The wife’s grief infuses every
part of her and does not wane with time. She has been compared to a female character in Frost’s A
Masque of Mercy, of whom another character says, “She’s had some loss she can’t accept from God.”
The wife remarks that most people make only pretence of following a loved one to the grave, when
in truth their minds are “making the best of their way back to life / And living people, and things they
understand.” She, however, will not accept this kind of grief, will not turn from the grave back to the
world of living, for to do so is to accept the death. Instead she declares that “the world’s evil.”
The husband, on the other hand, has accepted the death. Time has passed, and he might be more
likely now to say, “That’s the way of the world,” than, “The world’s evil.” He did grieve, but the
outward indications of his grief were quite different from those of his wife. He threw himself into the
horrible task of digging his child’s grave—into physical work. This action further associates the father
with a “way-of-the-world” mentality, with the cycles that make up the farmer’s life, and with an
organic view of life and death. The father did not leave the task of burial to someone else, instead, he
physically dug into the earth and planted his child’s body in the soil.
One might say that any form of grief in which the bereaved stubbornly finds the world “evil” is not a
very healthy one. One could also claim that the bereaved who never talks through his grief—who
never speaks of it—is doing himself and others injury. But, again, the purpose of the poem isn’t really
to determine the right way to grieve. Rather, it intends to portray a failure of empathy and
communication. Each person fails to appreciate the other’s grieving process—fails to credit it, allow
it, and have patience with it. And each fails to alter even slightly his or her own form of grief in order
to accommodate the other. Note how utterly the woman misunderstands the man’s actions. To her,
the act of burying the child was one of supreme indifference, while to him it must have been one of
supreme suffering—an attempt to convince himself, through physical labour, that this is the natural
order of things; or an act of self-punishment, a penance befitting the horror of the loss; or simply a
way of steeping himself in his grief, of forcing it into the muscles of his arms and back, of feeling it in
the dirt on his clothes. Note, too, how the wife completely fails to grasp the meaning of her husband’s
words: “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
Indisposed to see her husband’s form of grieving as acceptable, she takes his words as literal,
inappropriate comments on fence building. Yet they have everything to do with the little body in the
darkened parlour. He is talking about death, about the futility of human effort, about fortune and
misfortune, about the unfairness of fate and nature.
And yet, the man is also partially to blame. If he had any understanding of how to communicate to
her, he would not leave everything unspoken. He would make some concession to her needs and
articulate a brief defence. “You misunderstand,” he might say. “When I said that, it was because that
was the only way I could say anything at all about our loss.” Instead, he lets her accusations float in
the air, as if they were just hysteria and nonsense and not worth challenging. This displays a lack of
empathy and a failure of communication as fatal as hers. When she describes his heartless act of grave
digging, he says only, “I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed. / I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe
I’m cursed.” This leaves her free to believe that he accepts her accusation that the curse refers to his
hard-heartedness and not the terrible irony of her misinterpretation. He uses irony where she requires
clarity. She needs him to admit to agony, and he can grant her no more than veiled references to a
substratum of unspoken grief. And in the face of her grief’s obvious persistence, he makes a callous—
or, at very least, extremely counterproductive—remark: “I do think, though, you overdo it a little.”
How important a role does gender play in this tragedy? Certainly it has some relevance. There are the
husband’s futile, abortive physical threats, as if he could physically coerce her into sharing her grief—
but these are impulses of desperation. And both husband and wife acknowledge that there are
separate spheres of being and understanding. “Cant a man speak of his own child he’s lost?” asks the
husband. “I don’t know rightly whether any man can,” she replies. A little later he laments, “A man
must partly give up being a man / With womenfolk.” He sees his taciturnity and his inability to say the
appropriate thing as a masculine trait, and she seems to agree. (Yet she sees his quiet grave digging
as nearly inhuman.) Additionally, it is fairly standard to assume that more outward emotion is
permitted of women than of men—the tragedy of this poem might then be seen as an exacerbation
of a pervasive inequality. Yet one enduring stereotype of gender distinctions is the man’s inability to
read between the lines, his failure to apprehend the emotions underlying the literal meaning of the
woman’s words. In this poem, husband and wife fail equally in this manner. A woman, perhaps, might
be less likely to dig a grave to vent her grief, but she is just as likely to react to death by withdrawal or
by immersion in quotidian tasks. The reader witnesses the breakdown of a marriage (the burial of a
home, expressed in the title’s double entendre), but more basically, this is a breakdown of human
Partly, that breakdown is due to the inescapable limits of any communication. A great deal of Frost’s
poetry deals with an essential loneliness, which is linked to the limits of empathy and the sense that
some things are simply inexpressible. What can one really say about the loss of one’s child? Can one
adequately convey one’s grief on such an occasion? Is empathy—always a challenge—doomed to fail
under such particular strain?
[We should note in passing—though it is not of merely passing importance—that Frost knew firsthand
the experience of losing children. His firstborn son, Elliott, died of cholera at the age of three. Later,
his infant daughter died. Two more of his children died fairly young, one by suicide.]