Katherine Kearns: On "Home Burial"

If 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.

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Criticism Overview
Title Katherine Kearns: On "Home Burial" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Katherine Kearns Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost and a Poetics of Appetite
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