Home Burial : by Robert Frost || Summary and Analysis

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Home Burial

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."
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?"
Mounting until she cowered under him.
"I will find out now -- you must tell me, dear."
She, in her place, refused him any help,
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn't see.
But at last he murmured, "Oh" and again, "Oh."
"What is it -- what?" she said.
"Just that I see."
"You don't," she challenged. "Tell me what it is."
"The wonder is I didn't see at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it -- that's the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven't to mind those.
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child's mound ----"
"Don't, don't, don't,
don't," she cried.
She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
"Can't a man speak of his own child he's lost?"
"Not you! -- Oh, where's my hat? Oh, I don't need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.--
I don't know rightly whether any man can."
"Amy! Don't go to someone else this time.
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."
"You don't know how to ask it."
"Help me, then."
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
"My words are nearly always an offense.
I don't know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught,
I should suppose. I can't say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
With womenfolk. We could have some arrangement
By which I'd bind myself to keep hands off
Anything special you're a-mind to name.
Though I don't like such things 'twixt those that love.
Two that don't love can't live together without them.
But two that do can't live together with them."
She moved the latch a little. "Don't -- don't go.
Don't carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it's something human.
Let me into your grief. I'm not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.
I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably -- in the face of love.
You'd think his memory might be satisfied ----"
"There you go sneering now!"
"I'm not, I'm not!
You make me angry. I'll come down to you.
God, what a woman! And it's come to this,
A man can't speak of his own child that's dead."
"You can't because you don't know how to speak.
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."
"I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed."
"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 parlour?
You couldn't care! The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.
But the world's evil. I won't have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won't, I won't!"
"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?
Amyl 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! --"

Home Burial 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."
Home Burial

Introduction:

      North of Boston is Frost's "book of people" and it abounds in many abnormal and isolated people. One such person is the "over wrought", intensely sensitive mother in the Home Burial. She is worked up to such a level of excitement and is so sensitively emotionally involved in her own world of grief that she can break down at any point. Her grief and the haunting spectre of her first-born's death is what alienates her from her husband. In fact, she is not prepared to come out of her shell of lonely, intense suffering.

      Home Burial is generally regarded as the most intense of the dramatic dialogues written by Robert Frost. It is a poignantly tragic song about the impact the death of a first born has on extremely sensitive parents. The poem displays contradistinguished ways of bearing up with the death of a child. The main point of distinction, the main cause of conflict between the father and the mother of the dead one, lies basically in this point. The conflict is piteous and terrible because neither of the two is at fault. Both have their own concepts of truth and both are partially correct. Both are extremes and a reconciliation of extremes is generally hard to achieve, if not unattainable. Making herself a part and parcel of the world of hysteria, the woman completely estranges herself from her husband. She has come to realise one bitter, sombre truth - the living turn away from the dead within no time. Like Khayyam, who would shape the world to his heart's desire, she the mother) would like to shape grief to her heart's desire for she "won't have grief so" i.e., as it is generally found in the world. To the husband, it seems to be in just the proper degree of propriety that he should have dug the grave of his child with his own hands and his family graveyard, at a spot visible from their bed-room. The husband, without realising the degree of his wife's sensitivity mentions the rotting of birch-fences. The very mention of the world 'rot rings a bell in her mind and sets her thinking about the decaying body of their child who was buried in the grave. The horror of decay increases her grief manifold. But we, unlike the wife, are not blinded by any subjective emotions. We can judge and realise for ourselves, that the husband's apparently cool exterior and calm demeanour is no proof of any lack of emotions. In fact his unruffled behaviour is just a foil to the turmoil going - on within him. His controlled grief is both real and intense. Only, being saner and more practical, he has come to accept and reconcile himself to die fact of this son's death. The wife has yet to learn it In gushes of humanity, hurt pride, frustration, love and anger, he speaks of a different kind of truth, urging her to have faith in him confide in him and take a step towards reconciliation. The conflict between them remains unresolved, to all outward appearances. Only time will act as the great healer and the ultimate resolver.

Summary:

      The over-worked, excited mother is crippled and obsessed by the fact that her husband had dug the grave of their child himself and buried him with his own hands. She regards it as the most insensate and unpardonable act and has started considering her husband brutal and totally unfeeling. Her continued obsession with this thought has raised a barrier of an inexplicable hatred. Moreover, she has retired into the world of her own irrational ideas. The husband is a common, earthy man and to him the wife's uncommon excessive grief is incomprehensible. Voicing his feelings, he says:

I do think, though, you overdo it a little
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child.

      He thinks (and says so) that he hopes, she should gain strength from his love for her. But as one critic points out in a penetrative study of subtleties in the poem, now there is not even a single common point between them - nothing bridging the gulf between them. The husband realises that lite must go on as before despite personal losses and bereavements but for the wife there is nothing beyond and outside motherly grief she is steeped in. The husband tries to foil this grief by engaging himself in the demands of daily, routine existence; for the wife nothing exists but her grief. She now hates him because she considers him stonily insensate enough to dig his baby's grave with his own hands, unconcerned enough to invade the bulwark of grief which she has built up around herself with the mention of mundane things of daily life. She is horrified, surprised and grieved beyond any limits at what she interprets as his cold indifference. According to one critic, "the ending when she threatens to leave him and he shouts he will not let her 80, is no real resolution of their shattered relationship. The wife lacks the courage to run away; the husband lacks perceptiveness. Trapped by their own limitations, with every word they utter rubbing a raw spot, they deprive themselves and each other of every vestige of integrity and dignity. It is a terribly bleak future they face." But we feel that the poem does not end on such a negative note. The last lines spoken by the husband are not angry irritated shouts. The very words and tone of the husband's speech indicate that his soft and dormant love (and concern) for his wife takes militant form and there are all chances of his being able to bring back his wife to a normal and passionate life.

      Home Burial depicts very convincingly the plight of a person who cannot accept the facts of his condition. The young mother in the poem cannot reconcile herself to the fact that she has lost her motherhood. Perhaps, all unknown to herself or her consciousness, as though in a dream, she reaches the spot near the window from where the grave of her young one is visible. Every look at the fresh grave lacerates her wound further and she clings to her grief. Her husband's loving and supporting arms offer her no consolation. He feels his loss as intensely as her, but only tries to bear it in another way. He tries to bury the past and live for the living. The wife can neither comprehend nor follow this. Her memory pierces her wound. She can neither forget the dead nor forgive the living. She is contemptible towards human kind and tries to withdraw herself her own grief, away from human touch. She feels that one's friends do not really sympathise with the dead; the moment the dead are gone they get engrossed in their own worldly affairs. To her the world is totally evil, no white streaks in it. The world is evil and life tragic because she so intensely. Her estrangement from her husband is a symptom as well as a manifestation of her movement towards loss of reason.

      Frost's blank verse is loaded with a tremendous capacity for expressing subtle shades and nuances of feelings and emotions, which he mouths in these characters' speeches. Every word of their speech reveals a further shade of their personality or character. The wife and the husband are two distinct individuals and their personalities are brought forward through their speeches, some of which are marked by rushes, intensities and interruptions. These speeches bring out their latent differences and comrations of character, emotion and feeling.

      The poem also catches our attention because of its achievement in the field of technical skill. Let us examine the following lines:

"Not you! - Oh, Where's my hat'. ? Oh, I don't need it!
I must get out of here, I must get air -
I don't know rightly whether any man can'.

      The broken syntax expresses beautifully, the psychological instability and nervousness of the overwhelmed mother. Likewise, the repetition, of the words 'leap' and 'leap in air', "leap up", like that, like that' and so on expresses her complete bewilderment at and total incomprehensibility of what appears to be, her husband's insentient, stony cruelty. The language is simple and very common words are used and is clearly free of all artifices of poetry. As Amy Lowell points out, there is a complete congruity between what the husband does and says - there is an elemental quality in everything he says or does.

Critical Appreciation:

      In many of his poems, Frost depicts a grim sense of tragedy and Home Burial too is clearly in line with an important aspect of tragedy that domestic life involves. Giving the essence of the poem, Thompson remarks: "The conflict develops between wife and husband over the woman's way and the man's way of bearing the painful sorrow caused by the death of their firstborn. Each has been hurt seriously, while the man tries to cover grief with daily tasks and commonplace remarks about the weather the woman cries her sorrow openly as if she held the unburied child in her arms. The narrative begins with the final open conflict in which the woman accuses her husband of brutal insensitivity because he could bury the child with his own hands. He tries vainly to understand her, to make her understand him. She refuses... The tragic situation is heightened because each is partly right. But the woman's stubborn and unbalanced perseverance in turning her back on the yearning love of the man heightens the sense of tragedy...."

      Some critics interpret the ending of the poem as suggestive of a very bleak future ahead. But John E. Lynen holds views that are quite unlike those stated just now. According to him, the core of the poem and the impact of the drama within the poem is the psychologically changed attitude of the wife who is almost on the verge of nervous breakdown. The husband makes her talk and express at least a part of her grief. This expression of grief lightens, soothes and consoles her, whereby she attains new perception. She attains his perception because in order to give words to her grief she has to understand it properly, and this understanding gives her a new vision, a new perception. She feels that she must yield her life to the overwhelming sorrow which is the outcome of her child's death. Her husband seems to have been indifferent to their child's death and so she develops a barrier of hatred against him. There is, therefore, no question of her accepting his love. In the days since he buried the child till the present day, she has consistently cut herself away from him. Now, as her husband forces her to talk of these things, she at last comes to see that her grief and resentment result from the pain of discovering that human nature is limited and cannot sacrifice everything to sorrow. When she finally asserts, half hysterically, that she will not compromise her grief by returning to normal life, one senses that she herself sees the absurdity of her attitude. Her husband's kind, yet firm, reasonableness indicates that though she still suffers from the excess of grief, the crisis is now past and she will eventually be led back to life."

      Reginald Cook agrees whole-heartedly with this view calling the poem a great drama of "social adjustment in human relationship". The conjugal bond between a man and wife is one of the most basic of human relationships. In Home Burial, the poet depicts how due to misunderstanding and maladjustment this relationship reaches its breaking point. The final crack, the crash is however averted through self-expression and resumption of communication. The half-opened door in the final stanza is seen as symbolic embodiment of the meaning of the entire poem. The wife cannot gather courage to leave and the husband does not have the power to stop her and make her stay. "The talk is all" because both, the husband the wife are incapable of taking quick decisions and acting according to them. They finally realise (and are heading forward in that-direction), that life is a continuous strife anchored on adjustments and also that conjugal bonds have a sanctity of their own and are for ever.

      Home Burial has been rightly praised by a number of other critics, too. Randall Jarrell calls it the "summit of our poetry," and also, "unique in twentieth century poetry." Untermeyer is all praise for its rare blending of the strange and the familiar. Talking about the poem, he says, "the talk is the talk of everyday, the accents of a man and wife facing some sort of crisis; but the situation is strange - uncommon is experience. Little details take on unusual meanings: the sight of the graveyard "so small the window frames the whole of it;" the quickly piled burial mound with the ravel "leaping" in the air. Even the stains of mud on the man's shoes take on a significance that, to the woman, is horrifying, because it is so "matter-of- fact". Another critic appreciates the poem for the universality the poem imparts to husband-wife relationship and the unfathomable mysteries of life and death. The poet takes in his stride a movement from particular to general, personal to universal, known to the unknown.

Paraphrase:

      Line. 3. At some fear - The peculiar use of the preposition 'at is remarkable and should be noticed.

      Line. 9. And her face..to dull - Her countenance mirrored the fleeting moods and feeling that were dominant in her. Her face was marked by a gloomy dullness which reflected her insensibility and indifference to her husband's question.

      Line. 32. Don't....she cried - Frost himself remarks on these lines. He says: "I also think well of these four don'ts in Home Burial. They would be good in prose and they gain something from the way they are placed in the verse. Then there in the threatening "If-you-do- (The opening line) of the last stanza of the poem. It is that particular kind of imagination that I cultivate rather than the kind that merely sees things, the hearing rather than the seeing imagination, though I should not want to do without the latter."

      Line. 38-40. Not you...any man can - The broken, expletive style is indicative of the grief that has consumed her heart and also her mistaken anger at what she believes, is her husband's indifference towards their son's death. She is almost purple with frenzy - so much so that she does not want her husband to face her.

      Line. 52-58. A man must...together with them - In these words, the husband in the poem, Home Burial depicts a profound insight into human nature. The husband speaks these lines to his wife who (mistakenly, perhaps) finds him callously indifferent towards the death of his son - the major reason being that it was the husband himself who had buried their dead child. The husband is taken aback, all of a sudden, at the grave inhumane allegations which his wife is charging him with. Reaching out to the depths of tragic poignancy, the husband says that it was his ill-luck that he could never speak anything that would please his wife. Now, moving from the domain of the particular into that of the general the husband says that only nose men who give up some of their masculine qualities, like quickness of temper, can hope to win and please women. The husband does care for his wife and in order to make her happy, tries to suggest a feasible arrangement which would avoid his meddling with her affairs. While suggesting this arrangement, he makes it crystal - clear that such forbidding and buildings should not be there between people who love. He says that it is possible for two individuals who have no love for each other, to live with barriers between them and reiterates that where there is love there should be no barriers.

      Line. 59. She moved...little - This line appears to be like a stage-direction that the narrator's interpolation in the midst of dialogue.

      Line. 62-68. I am not...face of love - The husband continues to plead with his wife, not to be so burdened by her grief for the death of her son. The husband implores her very earnestly to share her grief with him. He wants her to tell him the cause of such tremendous intensity of her grief. He wants to convince her that in reality, he is not as apathetic and unconcerned as her standing apart from him would make it appear to other people. The husband pleads with all sincerity that she confide in him and at least give him a chance to prove his love for her. He also points out that she has not done good to have carried her grief to such an extent. He wants her to gain strength from his love and also the capacity to bear the grief of the death of their first-born. He says to her that she should not feel isolated and lonely in her grief as he was always with her to offer her company and solace.

      Line. 73. God..woman - These words are a spontaneous utterance on the part of the husband. He is simply shocked and surprised that a wife could behave so bluntly and rudely towards her own husband.

      Line. 76-82. If you had...know you - As Brower suggests, this extract is definitely a fine illustration of a lyrical moment in an essentially dramatic narrative. And in this one lyrical moment, the past gushes forth into the present with astonishing vividness. "These lyric expansions in Frost's eclogues," says Brower "fulfil the dramatic impulse and give it meaning, serving a purpose similar to a choric speech in Shakespeare. Frost too goes beyond the frontiers of drama, refusing to limit his poetry to a standard of realism, his dialogue firmly rejects."

      It is simply beyond the wife's comprehension, as to how a father can dig the grave of his own child. With this she associates utter heartlessness and absence of any soft feelings. Her repetition of "leap" and "leap in air, "leap up "like that, like that" only serve to emphasize what she feels.

      Line. 88-90. You could...every day concerns - The wife seems to be still in the grip of the shock she gets when she sees her husband talking and behaving normally, immediately after digging the grave of their child. Though his shoes were stained with fresh earth from their child's grave, the husband, to all appearances, was normal enough to talk about everyday affairs.

      Line. 93-94. I shall...I'm cursed-The husband's reply is brief, pointed and poignantly pathetic. He says that he is definitely cursed in hearing all this from no one else but his wife.

      Line. 95-100. I can repeat...darkened parlour - The wife continues to be bitter, and resentful towards her husband's behaviour, which, she feels, is a proof of apathy and indifference towards the event of their son's recent death. She considers him extraordinarily hard-hearted, callous and devoid of any paternal instincts. She continues accusing him, because to her, he seems to be carefree and not bothered at all about what will happen to the child's tender body, which lies dead and buried in his grave. She is all the more worried for her child and surprised at her husband's calm and unruffled attitude because the weather was rough, foggy and rainy.

      Line. 101-108. The nearest friends...back to life - These lines form a part of the speech in which the wife reproaches her husband for callous indifference towards the death of their child. Here her words take on a larger perspective and she starts telling of human kind in general. She is both grieved and embittered and what intense wonders, the couple (grief and bitterness) can work. She says that human beings are in Fact unconcerned and callous towards their loved ones who are on death bed. The wife goes on to say that the affection and concern which the family members show towards those who are approaching their end, is nothing but insincere fraudulent gestures. A person who knows that his death is imminent in near future, is the loneliest person and no amount of display of sympathy care and concern can make him overcome this dominant feeling that gnaws from within. From the moment a person comes to know that he is in the grips of a fatal disease, till the time of his actual death, he is consistently haunted by oppressive and subduing sense of loneliness. When the person finally does meet his end, his acquaintances and relatives seem to be giving him company for some time but the moment they turn their back upon his grave, they seem to become completely oblivious of him and the fact of his death. They get busy with the daily run of life. The wife says further that their zest for living and interest in the good things of life does not seem to nave dwindled a bit, despite their having con-fronted sombre scenes of death and burial. In her concluding statements the wife says that if this is the way of the world, she prefers leaving the world and livng a life of seclusion.

      Line. 119-120. Where do...I will - These are the last lines of the poem and indeed, the most impeccable ones. This is the final gesture on the part of the husband to maintain love. What pleadings and soft words could not establish, the husband will establish through his rights and authority. What the husband sets out to establish, is the supremacy of love. If there is mutual ove, people can transgress all vicissitudes of life without much problem. Moreover, if both leave the house, their home will be literally buried. We feel that their home is buried the very moment the husband buries their child in the grave-yard, adjacent to their house. What is left behind is only the house and lonely individuals living under one roof, with all understanding and any possibility of communication buried.

Conclusion:

      We can conclude by saying (as we have seen for ourselves) that the poem has a universal appeal and touches the tender cords of every heart. The gloomy morbidity of death in a distant, rural place is brought out in all its hues. Frost is very discreet about his technique. There is an elemental quality pervading the poem which would surely be lost if he chose to pursue subtleties of phrase.

Annotations:

      L. 4. She took a doubtful step and then undid it - she came down hesitatingly but soon regained her former position at the height from where she had been observing something. L. 25. So small the window frames the whole of it - the entire graveyard was visible through the window. It aso implied that the graveyard is small, not much larger than a bedroom. L. 34. Banister - a small pillar used as a support to the rail of a staircase. L. 35. Daunting - challenging. L. 36. He said twice over - he mumbled to himself twice before he uttered the words. L. 62. Let me into your grief - open out your heart and let me share your sorrow. L. 67. Mother - loss of a first child the way a mother bears the death of her first born child. L. 112. There, you have said it all and your feel better - self-expression brings relief to a weary and burdened soul and makes the person feel lighter and better. It is only through communication that there is any chance for misunderstandings to be dissolved and restoration of peace, harmony and mutual goodwill.

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