“Home Burial” and the Need for Compassion in Order to Be Versed

Home Burial,” though it is stylistically one of Frost’s “fat psycho-social monologues,” is just as didactic as anything in his lyric poetry.  The theme: without compassion, there can be no communication.  On a physical level, the action is binary: rising and falling on the staircase, opening and closing the latch, entering and exiting the door, the husband advancing, the wife taking doubtful steps and then undoing them to retreat again (4-6).  However, while there is the specter of physical coercion in lines such as 11 and 120, the couple’s conversation is the real battleground, and they struggle in particular over who is the most perceptive, whether they can understand each other, and whether they should express themselves at all.

Time and again the husband asks whether he can speak of the death of his own child (36-37, 74).  He says that to level with his wife, he must lower himself in some way (52-53, 72), but he also says that when he does speak it invariably offends her (48), so that even in reaching for her, he is breaching her.  He directly addresses the subject of naming in order to acknowledge the vast space between them and to propose a truce of sorts:

We could have some arrangement

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. (53-58)

The offer is ignored.  So, too, he resents that she goes to others to confide her grief: “Don’t carry it to someone else this time” (60).  Whether these rivals are relatives, friends, or even other lovers is not specified: what is important is that the husband is no longer the person the wife loves and trusts most, which violates the marriage covenant.

The wife interprets her husband’s arguments as “sneering,” a direct claim that he has no compassion for her (70).  She erects a series of assumptions against him, thinking him a “blind creature” as if he were a baby bird (16).. First, she thinks he cannot see what she fears (15-16, 20), and later she retorts instead that he cannot understand anything (45), cannot speak (75-76), and finally that she cannot make him understand (117).  She finally tells her husband that “one is alone, and he dies more alone” (105).  It is a fallacy that two people can face the hardships of life together (106-109).  Compassion and communication do not go that far.

Every person has his own perception, and though Atticus Finch suggests we walk a mile in someone’s shoes to understand him, this won’t get us all the way to empathy because while we can put on someone’s shoes, we can’t put on his mind.  So we must resort to communication.  Words, however, are heard and read through the senses, and just as our opinions color what we perceive in nature (“One had to be versed in country things / Not to believe the phoebes wept”), they color our perceptions of other people.  The husband and the wife in “Home Burial” have different styles of communication, but they both show some aptitude for expressing their feelings.  The husband is a slow-speaking type, perhaps consciously masculine in his expression: “a man must partly give up being a man with women-folk” (52-53), and the tombstones of his family members are “broad-shouldered little slabs” (28).  When he realizes how terribly his wife has misunderstood him, he says awkwardly but memorably, “I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed” (93).  Under the stress of the burial of his child, he turns to a pastoral metaphor: “‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build” (96-97).  In other words, nature will destroy even man’s best efforts, as natural causes have killed his child.  The wife can express herself sharply with interjections: “There you go sneering now!” and “Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t” (32) and “I won’t; I won’t!” (111). Her poetic style, in response to her husband’s, is more descriptive and florid, and she provides some the poem’s only rhyme and assonance: “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” (78-80).  The two should be able to understand each other.  The problem is not capacity but willingness.  He will continue to believe she is overreacting, and she will continue to believe he is emotionless, because they are both too hurt to believe otherwise.

The reason for this rupture is the dead child.  He represents, to put it plainly, the death of their relationship.  I had a Spanish professor, Antonio Ramos, who said that communication is copulation: two people come together, and in the heated exchange of ideas they create something new and unique.  This metaphor is especially fitting for this work with its issues about issue.  Marriage, according to the Church, joins two people as one.  Children are the physical and spiritual fruit of this union.  Spirituality aside, a child is something both parents make together and care intensely about.  The death of a child, then, can deal a fatal psychological blow to a relationship.

The husband also remarks the family graveyard is “not so much larger than a bedroom,” hinting at the act which created the child, which is perhaps ruined for them now (26).  Neither the child nor the cause of death is named in the poem, but the husband describes the death as a “mother-loss,” which subtly places blame on the wife and indicates miscarriage (67).  The wife says she wants to leave the house (39).  However, by the husband’s account, she has been inconsolable and cannot move on (65-69).  Perhaps, then, she feels like she and the house are both dead places, and as the baby could not live in her womb, she could not live in the house.  Fighting her husband, at least, lets her feel emotions again.

The silence between the two extends to even one of the most basic conventions of conversation: the use of names.  In etiquette classes, one is encouraged to address a person by his name whenever possible, as this acknowledges his individuality and the friendship between you and him.  In “Home Burial,” the husband and the child are never named.  The husband twice shouts his wife’s name – Amy, or “beloved” – in his pleas to keep her (41, 115).

Without compassion, there can be no communication.  Why did Frost use a long poem, written in prose style, to say this?  I believe that he is above all seeking the best way to express truth.  When he writes about nature, he does so believing that what occurs there has import for more than just that particular situation, that something small can represent something bigger.  Some of the traits of humanity, though, such as language and society, that have no analogue in nature, and so only a direct approach can work.  A domestic drama is more memorable than a nonfiction tract and more comfortable to read than a simple confession.  A first-person perspective would have been biased toward the narrator, so Frost uses a bird’s-eye view instead.  Frost’s most famous lyrical poems are as much about the narrator as they are about the scene, and the narrator even affects poems like “Spring Pools” and “The Gum Gatherer.”  Here, the characters do the work.

The work reads more like prose than poetry, lacking Frost’s typical rhyme and meter, but it is divided into verse.  This choice has several important effects.  First, it gives the work a sense of realism.  Beautiful language can make a poem, but it can also give it a sense of other-worldliness.  This isn’t how we would like ordinary people to speak; it’s how they do speak.  Frost gives us enough information to ground ourselves but not enough to make it feel expository.  Darker truths are revealed in little phrases and involuntary words like “mother-loss.”  The candor reminds me of post-World War II American plays, but impressively, “Home Burial” was written a generation prior.

Second, the short lines, especially when they produce long, twenty-verse blocks of text, create a falling sensation.  Fragments pile on top of each other, and full-stops occur in the middle of sentences.  The quarrel is “rational” in the sense that the parties use complete sentences, but the divisions of verses imply brokenness.  Finally, this style allows for some interesting two-verse sentences, in which the first verse introduces an apparently innocuous idea, and the second lifts the curtain and shows the dark thing beneath, as is characteristic of their marriage.  For example, the first verse, “He saw her from the bottom of the stairs” seems ordinary, but the finishing clause “Before she saw him” introduces the idea of competition (1-2).  “But I understand: it is not the stones, / But the child’s mound—” provides the biggest surprise in the poem (30-31).  “We could have some arrangement” sounds conciliatory, but then “By which I’d bind myself to keep hands off / anything special you’re a-mind to name” shows it a grim bargain (53-55).  The poet, at least in the St. Martin’s edition, also alternates left and right indentation to set the husband and wife’s interjections opposite each other on four occasions: 18-19, 31-32, 45-47, and 70-71, amplifying the sense of conflict.

Frost further illuminates the poem through the title.  As in “Mending Wall,” the title has a double meaning: it names the event which is the catalyst the poem, but it also describes the effect this event has on the two parties involved.  It is an inflection and an echo, with apologies to Stevens.  The word “mending” in “Mending Wall” could be either a verb or a participle: if taken as the former, it refers to the act of repairing the wall, which is what the two characters are doing.  If the latter, the title assigns to the wall the quality of mending, and indeed, the wall chore annually renews the friendship of two neighbors who are “all pine” and “all apple orchard,” respectively.  “Home Burial” most clearly refers to the burial of the child on the husband’s property, which the woman cites as the reason she loathes her husband and the reason she cannot stay in the house anymore.  In a larger sense, however, the poem describes the failure of the household, or marriage.

Just as the title, in its echo, encourages greater understanding of the poem, the poem in its echo encourages greater understanding of Frost’s oeuvre.  “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build”: this is the same Frost who writes of walls and woods.  He can indeed portray “complex” human problems.  Hence, his thoughts on “lighter” subjects also merit respect.

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