POST #13: Grief In Robert Frost’s Home Burial

Home Burial

I normally do links at the bottom, but if you have not read the poem I’m going to review, please click on the link below and read it now! You may like it, you may not, and I’d love to hear any opinions in the comments section. WARNING: it’s a narrative poem, and so pretty long – it’ll take a good 5 – 10 minutes to read:


Ok… On with the post!

Robert Frost is one of my favourite poets. His depictions of rural New England life are vivid and beautiful, and I particularly admire his use of simple, unaffected language to portray the most beautiful imagery through his poetry.

He was born in 1874, spending the first forty years of his life as a complete unknown. He won four Pulitzer Prizes, and eventually died in 1963. I love some of his more famous poetry, such as ‘The Road Not Taken’ and ‘Mending Wall,’ however, I’d have to say that my favourite of his poems, and of all poetry, is the raw, powerful narrative of ‘Home Burial’.

It’s set as a marriage collapses after the death of their baby. Frost shows incredible perception; using direct speech and real time to convey the different ways the husband and wife grieve. However, I think the sincerity of this poem gives it the touch of magic that draws you into its world.

And sincerity and experience is the poem’s beating heart. Frost had five children; one that died, aged four, of cholera, one that committed suicide, one that later developed a mental illness, one who died in her twenties after giving birth, and one who died just weeks after being born. This sequence of tragedy can’t have helped but put a strain on Frost’s marriage, and although we do not know how fictionalised the poem is, it clearly has more than a few strains of truth running through it.

As I mentioned earlier, the two characters in the poem are almost metaphors for the two different ways of grieving, and the deep rooted clash between them in ‘Home Burial’.

The wife’s grief consumes every part of her, its grip on her not relinquishing with time. She says,

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!’

Her view of the world as ‘evil’ emphasises her refusal to accept the death and her desperate wish to remain with her child, staying at the ‘grave’, is clear. She’s resisting the grief she sees in her friends and her husband; the grief that leads to acceptance and ‘making the best of [the] way back to life’.

By contrast, the husband is a step further in his acceptance of the death. He did grieve, throwing himself into the nasty task of digging the child’s grave – physical, earthy work. The action shows the farmer’s organic, way-of-the-world, mentality. He did not leave the burial to someone else; instead digging the soil himself and planting the child’s body in the earth – as one would a seed or bulb.

The clash, misunderstanding and essential lack of communication and empathy between husband and wife appears as each refuses to modify their grief even the tiniest bit to accommodate the other.

The wife’s complete misunderstanding of the husband’s burying of the child is interesting in its extremity. She says,

…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.

She takes his action as one of extreme callousness and indifference, while to him we can only imagine the extent of his suffering and self-punishment, forcing the pain of the death into his tired arms and legs.

We can only imagine this, as he does not say it. He makes no effort to communicate with her, replying only that,

I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.

This leaves her to believe that he accepts her accusation, and that the ‘curse’ refers to his hardheartedness, rather than the misunderstanding. His words are ironic, yet she does not see that – she requires clarity rather than his irony. If he brought himself to tell her his pain, to explain his agony, translating his feelings to ones she can understand, the conflict would perhaps be resolved.

But it isn’t, and the poem ends with her leaving the house to the ineffectual threats of her husband. The whole scene feels so real to the reader, kept alive by their words, spoken and unspoken, that the end comes naturally with the departure of half of the marriage.

The double-entendre of the title highlights the double tragedy of the poem. It is at once the Home Burial of a tiny child, and the Burial of a Home, the cementing of the death of their relationship.

Any thoughts?

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