Robert Frost is widely known for his unique place in the history of American poetry and for his innovative vision of form and style. He broadened the horizons of the poetic word immensely turning it into the universal genre that could speak to the readers on a par with prose. Frost’s poetry is known for deep philosophical messages and having layers of meanings. That is why it is so interesting to the researchers who interpret his works. His poem “Home Burial” is outstanding because the author manages to turn it into a truly dramatic work that tells the story of a tragedy that a certain family faces.
Speaking about the form of the poem, it is worth noting that it has two layers: the narrative and the dramatic one. The narrative layer enables the reader to find out the factual information that makes up the plot. The spouses, who live in the village, lose their only child, and the father buries him near the house in a home grave. The wife is desperate and inconsolable, she cannot stop grieving, and this distances her from her husband, who is seemingly more stable. Underneath this structure, the emotional action unfolds, which reveals the author’s message.
The structure of the poem is designed in the form of a dramatic dialogue with scarce author’s commentaries. This dialogue performs several functions: firstly, it sketches the plot, giving a flashback into the past; secondly, it draws a picture of the relationship between the husband and the wife. It also unveils the essence of their feelings and emotions related to the loss of their child and how this tragedy affected their life. The author’s comments are rare but they perform an important function by giving a view from the outside and revealing the features that are not visible in the dialogue. One more important function of the author’s commentaries is integrating the speeches of the two characters into the whole.
The conflict of the poem
The conflict chosen by the author is based on the private story. There are two characters in the poem who endure the tragedy in a different way. “Since in one short poem the author cannot review the whole ‘problem’ of conflict between husband and wife, he has achieved focus by directing the attention of the reader to the husband’s and wife’s reaction to one specific thing — grief…For the husband, though there is great grief, life must go on; for the wife, because there is great grief, life, normal life, cannot go on. The husband forces grief beneath and fills the surface of life with everyday affairs; the wife spreads her grief over all and submerges the affairs of everyday existence” (Doyle 38). The woman is a person who cannot cope with the loss and becomes introverted, turns away from her husband. The author describes the narrow range of emotions that she experiences: “her face changed from terrified to dull” (Frost 9). It is asserted that she sees the visions, which her husband is not able to see, because her eyesight is introverted; the focus of her reality is shifted to her emotions and memories, repeated over and over again. The fixation on loss makes her sensitive to her inner world but insensitive to the external reality and people, whom she is unable to perceive adequately. She turns to be severe and indifferent to her husband, does not want to share her grief with him. As the author points out “She, in her place, refused him any help” (13).The woman has a wrong vision of her husband as a “blind creature” and misinterprets his feelings. She accuses him that it was easy for him to dig a grave and bury their child with his own hands. She believes that he cannot understand her feelings because he acts in a more constructive way and tries to live on.
However, the man drawn by the author is an interesting and robust character. It is clear that he loves his wife and this is the reason why he tries to be strong and help her out of depression. She is fixated on the past, while he feels responsibility for her and their marriage. He seeks for ways out by suggesting ideas to her that can be helpful:
- A man must partly give up being a man
- With womenfolk. 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.
The above passage suggests that the man is trying hard to be constructive and save their marriage. He is ready to take the steps which he believes are wrong, if they can help his wife to feel better. At the same time, in his words the key idea is repeated not once that a husband and a wife should be open and share their feelings even if these feelings are so negative. He is frustrated because his wife turns away from him. He is trying hard to save the marriage despite the situation.
The setting of the poem for comprehending the author’s message
At the beginning of the poem the initial placement of the characters is stated:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down (1-2)
your first order!
This setting is symbolic and helps to reveal Frost’s message. The woman is standing higher than the man, which suggests that she is more involved in her spiritual world. The man, on the contrary, is placed lower, which means that he is more realistic and walks on the earth. The woman walks down the stairs and is going to leave the house. First, this means that her spirit is low, that she falls from the sky to the ground. Secondly, the metaphor of leaving the house suggests that she wants to leave her husband and break the marriage. The man, on the contrary, tries to secure the marriage and keep his wife home, which is symbolized by his attempts to persuade her to stay. Besides, the setting reveals that they are in the process of going in the direction towards each other, which suggests that they have a chance to meet each other and become close again.
One more important aspect of the scene is a window that goes out to the grave yard: “So small the window frames the whole of it” (26). The metaphor of the window is significant. It symbolizes the woman’s outlook. The only thing she notices in the outside world is the death of her child, she does not see any other things out of this small window. She notices that the graveyard is of similar size to the bedroom, which discloses the idea that her family is now both among the alive and the dead, and that they are equally influential and significant. At the same time, it suggests the presence of death in the spouses’ bedroom, which separates them from each other.
The general emotional tone is grief in the woman’s part and calmer compassion in the part of the man and the author’s commentaries. While the wife’s emotions are acute and painful, the reaction of the husband is warmer and milder. However, by the end of the poem he starts to feel desperate too because she does not hear him and refuses to follow his begging. He is desperate when he is saying “I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will!” Nevertheless, this metaphor of following her reveals his determination and commitment to do whatever he can for her sake. The two characters are opposite to each other in the aspect that while the woman expresses her feelings overtly, the man hides his grief. It can be suggested that his attempt to hide his emotions mislead her because her strategy as a woman was quite different. If he revealed his emotions, he would have more chances to be understood by her.
The rhythm of the poem is characterized by the fact that the author is trying to make it sound as natural as possible. It is very easy to forget that it is a poetic work because, first of all, it is very dramatic by structure, and, secondly, because the speech flows like the narrative one despite of occasional rhyming. The diction, too, is close to the conversational language that people often use, it is far from being elevated. “I do think, though, you overdo it a little” the husband says to his wife in a plain language. “In Home Burial Frost by the simple diction he employs, the seeming prose word order he uses, and the liberal substitution of anapaests and trochees gives the illusion of actual speech. It must be noted very carefully, however, that it is illusion, for samples taken from different points in the poem show that a definite iambic rhythm is present throughout”. (Doyle 35)
Thus, the poem by Robert Frost is an expressive dramatic work that reveals a deep conflict between the husband and the wife based on their different understanding of how grief should be treated. By means of setting, structure, diction, tone and metaphors the poet reveals this conflict and demonstrates its several layers to the reader.