Mordecai Marcus: On "Home Burial"

"Home Burial" may not be as popular as "Mending Wall" and "The Death of the Hired Man," but it is Frost's most critically acclaimed and intensively analyzed narrative. Again, Frost deals with barriers between people—in this case a husband and wife who have recently lost their first child and who handle their grief in strikingly different ways—according to their characters and expressive capacities. The locale is a New England farm with a family burial plot in the yard, illustrating familiarity with death, which partly accounts for the husband's taciturn handling of his grief. The poem opens with intense looking and severe gestures between the man and woman, as she gazes from a stairway window at the backyard grave of her recently dead child, defensively and accusatorially, both calling attention to herself and refusing her husband's concern for her grief. He seems not to have noticed the view from the window, but his tender description of the gravestones and the child's mound—not yet marked with a stone—show that he is not unfeeling but that such family deaths have become an everyday part of his life. In the initial action the wife moves away from the husband and he pursues her with hesitating dominance, but her continued withdrawal is partly a provocation, which helps account for his protest that he's not allowed to grieve in his own way. Her desire for air and her explanation that perhaps his reaction is just masculine show that her criticism may not be strictly personal.

Struggling to restrain himself, the husband sits down, speaking and reflecting on the fact that his wife goes to other people with her troubles instead of discussing them with him. He is attempting reconciliation, but she continues to taunt him with words and actions, insisting that he can't say the right thing. He musingly half-apologizes for his ways and tries to account for their communication barrier by the difference between male and female. Tentatively offering to consider certain subjects off limits for them, he cleverly notes that such a tactic is necessary for strangers living together but not good for lovers. Again she makes a taunting gesture, and again he asks her not to take her grief to someone else but rather to share it with him. Still, he shows that he is reconciled to the child's death in a way she can't be, and she regards his view that their love casts a blessing on the lost child, and expresses a promise for the future, as a sneer at the reality of their loss. His repeated protest that he's not allowed to grieve in his own way leads her to a full-scale attack on what she takes to have been his grossly unfeeling burial of the child.

Here she projects her own insistence on his unfeelingness onto images of his burial activities, not seeing that he buried the child himself to maintain his intimacy with it, to make it a part of his past, and to work out his own griefs. The spade and the stains on his shoes, which she took for signs of indifference, show his bond to the processes of life and death, just as his everyday talk after digging the grave was a way of holding back pain. But he is either incapable of an analytic answer or too stubbornly proud to offer one, so instead of protesting that she misunderstands, he can only toss out grimly oblique anger. She revels in the fact that everyone must die alone, and sets herself up as a philosopher, condemning humanity's supposed insensitivity to everyone else's grief and proposing the impossible task of changing the world.

His assumption that she has talked out her grief and his concern with the possibility of being spied by a neighbor suggest either a stronger sense of privacy than his wife's or a superficial concern about the judgments of others. The wife's obsession suggests an inflated pride in something that distinguishes her from others. Her repeated assertion that she must get away shows that she doesn't really want a break with her husband, that she can see her way to internal change. His apparently irrational insistence that she tell where she's going so he can bring her back by force suggests that he knows she wants to be subdued or at least to have her irrationality brought back to earth. Each character evinces more sympathy than the other from some readers; Amy is sometimes seen as being over the edge of madness, and her husband is sometimes seen as self-righteously callous. The poem has some relationship to Elinor and Robert Frost's loss of their first child, and although the characters do not seem much like the poet and his wife, Frost may have put into them some of her tendency toward exaggeration and his own almost willful and defensive pretense that he does not understand things that he thinks are improper. A balanced view might be that the poem shows compassion for two different human types in view of not only their loss but also their covert insistence on and exaggeration of their differences.

From The Poems of Robert Frost: an explication. Boston: G.K. Hall & Co., 1991. Copyright © 1991 by Mordecai Marcus


Title Mordecai Marcus: On "Home Burial" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Mordecai Marcus Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 17 Jan 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication
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