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 5
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?” 10
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, 15
Blind creature; and awhile 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 it at once. 20
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? 25
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. 30
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?” 35
“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.” 40
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. 45
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 50
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.” 55
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 60
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. 65
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.” 70
“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 in air, 75
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. 80
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 stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave 85
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.” 90
“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 95
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
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, 100
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. 105
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? 110
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. 115
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will—”
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 recognize 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 hard-heartedness. 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
Pay special attention to the tone, vocabulary, and phrasing of the dialogue. At the time of “Home Burial” ’s publication, it 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 pretense 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 labor, 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 husbands 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 parlor. 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 defense. “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 griefs 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 communication.
Partly, that breakdown is due to the inescapable limits of any communication. Much of the literature of the twentieth century stems from an acknowledgement of these limits, from attempts to grapple with them and, paradoxically, express them. 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.