Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 677
“Home Burial” is an intensely dramatic poem about a bereaved and increasingly estranged married couple. The husband has just returned from burying their young son in a family plot of the sort that served northern New Englanders as cemeteries for generations. He mounts the stairs toward his wife “until she cowered under him.” What follows is a bitter exchange. The wife, unable to understand his failure to express grief vocally, accuses him of indifference to their loss; he, rankled by what he considers a groundless charge, tries blunderingly to assure her, but they fail to comprehend each other. At the end of the poem she is threatening to leave and find someone else who can console her, while he threatens, “I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!—”
The poem is nearly all dialogue except for a few sections of description which work like stage directions in a play, serving to relate the couple spatially and to underline by movement and gestures the tension between them. Although the poem does not require staging, it is easily stageable, so dramatically is it presented. The reader surmises that the two really do love—or at least have loved—each other and that the difficulties between them have resulted not from willful malice but from clashes of temperament and different training. The man is expected to be stoical, tight-lipped in adversity. Having learned to hide his feelings, he is unable to express them in a way recognizable to his wife, with her different emotional orientation.
She has watched with a kind of horror his energetic digging at the gravesite; he has made the gravel “leap up . . . and land so lightly.” She cannot understand that he has converted his frustration into a relevant and necessary physical activity, as men have traditionally learned to do. Nor does she realize that a seemingly callous remark of his about the rotting of birch fences may well constitute an oblique way of referring to the demise of the child that he has helped make. Instead she draws the conclusion that, because he does not grieve overtly as she does, he has no feelings. Because he is inexpert at oral communication, he cannot say the kind of thing that might alleviate her grief.
The poem becomes a painful study in misinterpretation that is in the process of leading to the disintegration of a marriage. The poem is also a brilliant example of Frost’s success at unobtrusively adapting a vignette from life to the formal requirements of blank verse. In the early twentieth century, avant-garde poets were strongly resisting traditional verse poems, but Frost had his own way of escaping the tyrannizing effects of meter.
Although “Home Burial” and the other blank verse poems in North of Boston look conventional on the page, and although the poet’s firm iambic support for the dialogue is readily apparent to well-versed readers, it is easy to forget that something such as the wife’s “There you go sneering now!” followed by his “I’m not, I’m not!” is a more or less regular pentameter line as well as an easily imaginable bit of argument between two disaffected people. Frost showed that ordinary people could inhabit a poem, could talk and argue and move convincingly within a medium that William Shakespeare and John Milton in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had tended to reserve for aristocrats and angels.
Unlike a play, Frost’s dramatic poem has no resolution. Will the wife leave, as she threatens? If so, will he restrain her by force as he threatens, or will he resign himself to the status quo, as he has before? It is not Frost’s intention to solve this marital problem. He had known conflict in his own marriage and observed it in other marriages; he certainly knew the ways in which spouses might resolve, or fail to resolve, their conflicts. What he chose to do was provide an opportunity to eavesdrop on a bereaved couple at an agonizing moment and feel their passion and frustration.
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