Karen L. Kilcup: On "Home Burial"

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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Karen L. Kilcup: On "Home Burial" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Karen L. Kilcup Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and the Feminine Literary Tradtion
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