Richard Poirier: On "Home Burial"

In "Home Burial," the couple are trapped inside the house, which is described as a kind of prison, or perhaps more aptly, a mental hospital. Even the wife's glance out the window can suggest to the husband the desperation she feels within the confines of what has always been his family's "home"; it looks directly on the family graveyard which now holds the body of their recently dead child:

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."     [always?] 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,"              [see?] Mounting until she cowered under him. "I will find out now -- you must tell me, dear."

The remarkable achievement here is that the husband and wife have become so nearly inarticulate in their animosities that the feelings have been transferred to a vision of household arrangements and to their own bodily movements. They and the house conspire together to create an aura of suffocation. For a comparable sense of divorcement communicated mostly by silent uses of space in a "home," a supposedly shared area, perhaps the best analogy is not to be found in literature but in film, such as the opening of Antonioni's La Notte. But of course Frost's special genius is in the placement of words. The first line poses the husband as a kind of spy; the opening of the second line suggests a habituated wariness on her part, but from that point to line 5 we are shifted back to his glimpse of her as she moves obsessively again, as yet unaware of being watched, to the window. Suggestions of alienation, secretiveness, male intimidation ("advancing toward her") within a situation of mutual distrust, a miasmic fear inside as well as outside the house - we are made to sense this before anyone speaks. Initially the fault seems to lie mostly with the husband. But as soon as she catches him watching her, and as soon as he begins to talk, it is the grim mutuality of their dilemma and the shared responsibilities for it that sustain the dramatic intelligence and power of the poem.

I have indicated in the margin a number of the emendations made by Lathem in his edition - which is assumed to be "authoritative" - because his version substantially loses the poignant delicacy with which Frost treats the estrangement between husband and wife.

Lathem chose to make two emendations wholly on his own: he added a question mark after "always" in line 7, and he put a comma after "help" in line 13. He also arbitrarily chose to follow early editions by allowing a question mark at the end of line 10, though Frost had deleted it in all the editions he supervised after 1936, including the 1949 Complete Poems. These textual matters are worth considering, because while Lathem's choices hurt the poem, they make us aware of punctuation in ways that considerably increase our appreciation of nuances which might otherwise go unremarked. We can note, for example, the scrupulous justice with which Frost tries to locate, even through the use of a comma, the sources of conflict in this "home." There is a marvelously managed shifting in the apportionment of blame. Thus the man's initial speech, while impatient, is meant to be more gentle than it is in the assertively interrogative form that Lathem's question mark gives it. Without the question mark, there is the implication that the husband has learned, after many trying experiences, not to expect an answer to his questions. And the strength of her obstinacy with regard to him is then confirmed by the fact that instead, of showing fear at his "advancing on her," her face, on his near approach, changes from "terrified to dull." Nonetheless, the choice of "until" and "under" in the phrase "mounting until she cowered under him" suggests that there indeed is a calculated masculine imposition of will in the way he acts, though this possibility is as quickly muffled by his then speaking more gently still ("'I will find out now - you must tell me, dear"') with its allowable lack of stress on the word "now" and the especially strong beat, after a comma, on the word "dear." Frost did not choose to put a comma after the word "help" ("She, in her place, refused him any help / With the least stiffening of her neck and silence"), and its absence is crucial to our recognition of how perverse and stubbornly uncompliant she can be. With the comma added, the line suggests that her stiffness and silence merely accompanied her refusal to tell him what she had seen out the window; without the comma, we are allowed to infer that she would choose not to stiffen her neck lest she thereby give him any clue at all about what she has been staring at: "Sure that he wouldn't see / Blind creature . . ." These surges of surreptitious feeling between the two of them obviously result not from their immediate juxtaposition on the stairs but from a customary incapacity to share any feelings with one another.

Of course he does see what is out there, the child's grave. And her challenge then to "'Tell me what it is"' is merely the first of many instances in which differences are defined, as they so often are in Frost, as differences in the use of words, in the way one speaks or hears things, in the uses to which a metaphor is put, be it sane or crazy, brutal or insensitive: "'You don't know how to ask it"' (line 43), she complains, and he - "'My words are nearly always an offense. / I don't know how to speak of anything' " (lines 45-46); or, again (line 70), "'A man can't speak of his own child that's dead,'" to which in the next line she replies, "'You can't because you don't know how to speak."' Her lengthy indictment of him near the end of the poem begins with her claim, "'I can repeat the very words that you were saying . . . think of it, talk like that at such a time!'" (lines 91, 94). One of the husband's initial mentions of the graveyard does betray a certain tactless predominance and possessiveness ("'The little graveyard where my people are!"'), but this is immediately followed by a metaphor of diminishment that somewhat restores a balance ("'So small the window frames the whole of it"'). However, this in turn gives way to yet another metaphor of dangerously thoughtless implication: "'Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?"' In its very casualness, really a kind of stupidity, the husband's comparison of the graveyard to a bedroom is a sign that, having been made so nervous about the inadequacy of his language, he has to double or triple his illustration of anything he wants to communicate. He seems unaware of his tastelessness, which is of course all the more reason to think that his bedroom metaphor reveals some of his deepest feelings about what has happened to their marriage. But if the bedroom is like a graveyard, the reason has as much to do with her excessive (possibly neurotic) sensibility as with the obvious deficiencies of his. And if he is insensitive, he is at least not without gentleness. When he asks her " 'Don't - Don't go./ Don't carry it to someone else this time"' (lines 56-57), he is less peremptory than is she: "'Don't, don't, don't, don't' she cried" (line 29), a line that is as remarkably powerful in its effect as a similar one in Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants": "Will you Please please please please please please please stop talking?" She is asking him not to speak; he is asking her not to leave him.

Out of some terrible fastidiousness she seems to want to abridge even what is left of their relationship, while he, because of love, and some incipient pride of place in the community, is doing his best to maintain some sort of contact. . . .

Sexuality in Frost has been noted, when at all, with a kind of surprise. And yet in a very great number of his poems it figures, as it does here, as a submerged metaphor for his all-consuming interest in the relational and transitional nature of poetry, of thinking, of talking itself. The husband and wife here cannot "ask" anything of one another or "tell" anything without giving offense partly because they both are flawed in their sense of time and of timing. With her desire to stop everything in the interest of mourning the death of an infant, she cannot understand his apparent incapacity to mourn at all and his choosing to talk, instead, of everyday concerns. She does not see that this is his only way of managing grief, of not letting it consume his or her life. And the words she accuses him of using as he sat there talking on the day he buried his child - "'Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build"' - form hemselves without his knowing it, but with complete appropriateness, into a metaphor for the way nature, if only by some accident of weather, will erode whatever human beings might make to protect themselves from the reality of change and death. The wife sees and then describes her husband's actions on that day with an angry exactitude, a kind of novelistic passion for detail, characteristic of country women in the poems we have been looking at:

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."

There is a genius here of a sort found in the brilliantly right sentence in Joyce's "The Dead" when Gretta remembers how her dead lover of long ago stood under her window in a cold that was to chill him to his death: "'I can see his eyes as well as well!"' she says to Gabriel. "'He was standing at the end of the wall where there was a tree."' Allen Tate remarks on how a vision of the past is framed with startling immediacy by the mention of that "tree," how it lets us share a reality vividly present to the person speaking. The same peculiar convergence of past and present occurs here, thanks to Frost's keen sense of the power of variation and repetition: "'Making the gravel leap and leap in air, / Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly.'" Her charge continues, and with the same haunted exactness of recollection:

"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 parlor?"

It is important here to notice the comparative bareness of the attendant language when she quotes the metaphor of the "birch fence." His inability to respond effectively to her charges is understandable: an indictment cannot be answered when it is only more or less a description, as if certain words and acts are inherently contemptible. " 'I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed,' " he says, and indeed he is being "cursed": there is no word more apt for what she says to him. It is worth recollecting here something that Frost wrote in a letter to Wilbert Snow, a poet and professor of English at Wesleyan University, in 1933:

My mind goes back to how true Turgeneff holds the balance between protagonists and antagonists in the death of Bayarov in Fathers and Sons. He is perfect in his non-partizanship. I never quite like to hear a wife turned on against her husband or vice versa. They know too much about each other and they are not disinterested. They lack, what they should lack, detachment. Maybe it bothers me as a breach of manners (Thompson, Letters, p. 393).

On the chance that the wife's accusations might prove more persuasive than they should, Frost corrects the flow of our sympathies by allowing for a curious imbalance in that part of the poem (lines 97-107) given to her complaints about the brevity of all human sorrow. It is as if even the proportions of the poem - its form and decorum - much less those of mourning, must be swelled out of proper shape by the wife's obsession with her grievances. The catalogue of her complaints is a symptom of how for her they have become a way of deadening a deeper grief too painful to be borne. Her list of grievances is no adequate metaphor, that is, for the grief she feels. All she can do is insist that " 'I won't have grief so,' " won't have it, that is, dissipated by the passage of time. In response, one might think of a poem called "Good Relief" never collected by Frost in any volume, in which he says that "No state has found a perfect cure for grief / In law, in gospel, or in root or herb." "Grief without grievance" - this, we have seen, was a dictum for Frost; the limits of sympathy were no less prescribed by the nature of things than were the limits of metaphor. A bit like the wife here was his sister Jeanie, as described in a letter of April 12, 1920, to Louis Untermeyer:

She has always been antiphysical and a sensibilitist. I must say she was pretty well broken by the coarseness and brutality of the world before the war [World War I] was thought of. . . . She was willing to go almost too far to show her feeling about it, the more so that she couldn't find anyone who would go far enough. One half the world seemed unendurably bad and the other half unendurably indifferent. She included me in the unendurably indifferent. A mistake. I belong to the unendurably bad.

And I suppose I am a brute in that my nature refuses to carry sympathy to the point of going crazy just because someone else goes crazy, or of dying just because someone else dies. As I get older, I find it easier to lie awake nights over other peoples' troubles. But that's as far as I go to date. In good time I will join them in death to show our common humanity (Thompson, Letters, p. 247).

The experience in the reading of the poem is that the wife's talk in this long peroration has a driven and dissociated quality with respect not only to the form of the poem but to the conversation going on in it. That is why the husband feels that she has somehow purged herself and that the "talk" will of itself have relieved her and the situation of a kind of swelling:

"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? Amy! 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! --"

Clearly, she cannot say "it all" because her grievances are not and cannot be the equivalent of her grief, and so she necessarily rejects what to her cannot help but sound like condescension. Her movement out of the house, out of discord, and into a literal "extravagancy" on the road leads again to his assertion of masculine threat and will, though this is now so tempered by an evident love and toleration and concern that the threat sounds more like a plea and an admission of helplessness.

Besides being a moving and powerful human drama, "Home Burial" is about the limits, as revealed through the consciousness of these two unique people, of "home" as a place, a form, a mode of discourse in which often unmanageably extreme states of feeling occur. But if the limits are sad and terrifying, Frost seems nonetheless sure of their necessity. His decorums, he would have it, are consistent with reality and, if respected, can make life at least manageable. Violations of decorum in a poem or in any other formed relationship are a cause as well as a symptom of induced terror. "Poetry is measured in more senses than one," Frost wrote to Sidney Cox in September 1929. "It is measured feet, but more important still it is a measured amount of all we could say an we would. We shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short" (Thompson, Letters, p. 361). It could be said that the central subject of this poem is poetic form seen in the metaphor of domestic form - a debate between a husband and wife about how each "shall be judged finally by the delicacy of our feeling of where to stop short." She claims that he has violated any possible decorums of grief by his lack of expressiveness. Hence, she "must get out of here" (line 37), "somewhere out of this house" (line 113) - this poem, too. He insists that she restrict her expression of grief to the house and to the boundaries of their marital contract, but he is in all this too peculiarly willful for her or for his own good. The poem ends on his exclamation " 'I will!' " Our only sure indication that she has by then gone through the door she has been gradually opening while they talk.

From Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing. Copyright Ó 1977 by Oxford University Press.


Criticism Overview
Title Richard Poirier: On "Home Burial" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Richard Poirier Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Robert Frost: The Work of Knowing
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