“Home Burial“ by Robert Frost is a dramatic lyric that verges on despair through discord, and discord through despair. A dramatic lyric deals with a single scene and relies on dialogue rather than narration or description for elaboration of the subject.
Significance of the Title
The title “Home Burial" denotes the death of the son and connotes the death of the relationship between the mother and father. Therefore, it utilizes the figure of speech called adianoeta, or double entendre.
The Distance in the Relationship
The scene of the poem has the mother at the top of the staircase adjacent to the window, and the father at the bottom of the staircase near the door. Though there is an outlet (window) and exit (door), both of them experience a sense of claustrophobia (in their marital bond).
“I must get out of here. I must get air.—“
The man, being a farmer, accepts the organic cycle of life and death with resignation and moves on. The woman, on the other hand, cannot come to terms with reality. She finds refuge in her subjective emotions as compared to the objectivity of the father who is willing to speak about the death of his son. His objective picture of the death of his loved ones is simplified in the following lines:
" The little graveyard where my people are!/So small the window frames the whole of it. “
At the present, the things of the past are condensed into a mere window to the past.
The stance of the woman and the man is more in line with Julia Kristeva’s conception of the semiotic female and the symbolic male. The action of climbing up the stairs generally signifies progression; but with respect to the mother, it symbolizes regression as she clings onto the past memories in desperation. The husband attempts to connect with his wife, but in vain.
The ‘rotting’ referred to towards the end of the poem points to the stagnation in their relationship. More than saying anything, they build up the atmosphere of angst through not saying anything.
The Lack of Communication
She misunderstands him more than he understands her. This is evident in the opening lines of the poem. “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs/Before she saw him." Though he wants to converse with her, she is reluctant to open the window to her heart. Her persistent act of looking out of the window is representative of diverting to recollections of the past. As the man repeatedly questions her on her apprehensions, she is reluctant to open up. Eventually he discovers the ‘reason’ that upsets his wife.
He states that hitherto he had failed to notice the mound because he was accustomed to its presence in the vicinity. He describes the same in terms of statistics: “Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it? /There are three stones of slate and one of marble." Just as he is about to refer to the topic of the lost child verbally, the woman stops him from doing so. The woman in “Home Burial" by Robert Frost has been compared to another in Frost’s A Masque of Mercy who has “had some loss she can’t accept from God."
Different Responses to the Tragedy
Frost had experienced the loss of his own children and could comprehend the misery associated with the same. Therefore, the response of the man could be autobiographical: “Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?" People are taught only to experience the loss and not to verbalize it as it would be conceived as inhuman. Frost here voices his own standpoint on the same as he asserts that it would not depersonalize the person or fact in question.
The mother opines that a man must sometimes forgo the aspects of being a man when he is with a woman. For a man, by convention, to indulge in emotions has been stereotyped as ‘effeminacy.’ However, the man in the prescribed poem does move toward her in an action of not only to coming close to her emotionally, but also in terms with her dictates. He promises not to mention anything that would offend her. Further, he entreats with her that if he could not communicate in a manner deemed acceptable to her, at least he be taught to do so. He desperately implores with her for a chance.
The reasons for the woman to be drawn into an emotional cocoon are not limited to the present alone. She harbors in her mind the image of the man digging the grave of his child with his own hands. While he chose to express his love in a practical manner, she chose to live it psychologically and sensitively. The very act of digging the grave comes across as ruthless and callous to her, and is portrayed like the functioning of a machine.
“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,
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"
The scene of the woman leaving the house and shutting the door behind her at the end of the poem is reminiscent of the last scene in Henrik Ibsens's A Doll's House. The woman in "Home Burial" like Nora wants to escape from a claustrophobic atmosphere. The door is their outlet to freedom. When the man says: "Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs," it connotes more than it denotes. He assures her that he will not revert to his earlier stance. Though he attempts to be in line with matriarchy, the patriarchal strain in him eventually does assert itself as he declares:
“Where do you mean to go? First tell me that./
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will—"
Home Burial by Frost, Robert, 1915, North of Boston, New York: Henry Holt and Company.