Robert F. Harris
Too often we fail to recognize the otherness of another’s experience and expectations, especially when the other is someone close, someone we imagine that we understand. Then, events that abruptly reveal our differences may threaten our connection. Robert Frost’s poem, “Home Burial,” is an evocative account of such a revelation between two people. In dramatic form Frost shows us a husband and wife struggling mightily to navigate the trauma of their first-born child’s death and burial, and succumbing in the end to mutual incomprehension and the loss of their marriage. We see the anguish in their efforts to connect. Can we see how they go so tragically wrong? Can we learn from their example?
The poem opens as the husband comes across his wife enacting a puzzling sequence of repetitive movements upon the stairs:
He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking over her shoulder at some fear.
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: ‘What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know.’
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
He said to gain time: ‘What is it you see.’
Mounting until she cowered under him.
‘I will find out now—you must tell me, dear.’
She in her place, refusing him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.
The poem unfolds in actions and dialog. We’re told nothing of who these people are, their contexts and histories, so our attempts to understand them depend on inference and imagining. We are thus in the same position as the protagonists, who must also rely on imaginative inferences if they will come to understand each other. The husband and wife, of course, have greater knowledge of their individual backgrounds and the evolution of their togetherness, but as to the current feelings and attributions of the other, they must rely on the same clues that we do. The narrative arc moves from the husband’s question about what his wife sees from the stairs, through her gradual elaboration of an answer, to their mutual failure to engage with the meanings thus revealed.
The wife’s fearful gaze and the compulsive repetition of looking, stepping away, and stepping back to look again, suggest that she’s processing a traumatic experience. Her husband’s puzzlement at her behavior draws him to mount the stairs to question her. His ignorance of what preoccupies her reflects a larger estrangement between them. His words declare a wish to understand her, but his manner asserts authority over her, his repeated “What do you see” being less a question than a demand. His “you must tell me, dear” combines affection with condescension. She cowers briefly, but less cowed than defiant, she refuses to help him. Her dullness suggests that previous communicative attempts have ended in frustration, an impression she confirms with her contemptuous “blind creature.” She knows that he’s more inclined to discharge his emotions into action rather than managing them with reflection or words. She nevertheless grants him time to look out the window.
I picture him as older than she is, set in his ways, used to having his way, used to living alone before their marriage. Her silent rebellion is the frequent resource of the young against the predations of their elders. We see differences in temperament. He is active, impulsive, advancing, mounting. She is inward, stiffening, judging, withholding. Both are stubborn, but in his approaching her and in her allowing him to look we see that both do want some communication with the other. Their wish to connect is offset by competing motives: on his side by his need to maintain a position of authority and superiority, and on hers by resentment, and contempt born of disillusionment. Their interior battles will to be consequential in their struggle with each other. The husband looks out the window, and he finally recognizes what she’s been looking at:
But at last he murmured, ‘Oh,’ and again, ‘Oh”
‘What is it—what?’ she said.
‘Just that I see.’
‘You don’t,’ she challenged. ‘Tell me what it is.’
‘The wonder is I didn’t see it at once.
I never noticed it from here before.
I must be wonted to it—that’s the reason.
The little graveyard where my people are!
So small the window frames the whole of it.
Not so much larger than a bedroom, is it?
There are three stones of slate and one of marble,
Broad-shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight
On the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those,
But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound—‘
His bluster relaxes into reflection, and his description of the “little graveyard where my people are” is tender and admiring. His familiarity with the scene is another claim to authority. It’s his family that’s buried here, he’s the owner; she’s come to his place from somewhere else. His description gives us further important information. The private graveyard locates the action in a rural setting. The three slate stones suggest that this is not a wealthy family, but working farmers, broad shouldered in their capacity for labor. The marble headstone could belong to the family patriarch, the father whose property he’s inherited and whose authority he emulates. He compares the graveyard with a bedroom, signaling that it is, for him, a place of rest. We learn that what divides the couple involves the burial of a child, and his mention of the mound evokes an eruption from his wife:
‘Don’t, don’t, don’t,
don’t,’ she cried.
She withdrew, shrinking from beneath his arm
That rested on the banister, and slid downstairs;
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
‘Not you! Oh, where’s my hat? Oh, I don’t need it!
I must get out of here. I must get air.
I don’t rightly know that any man can.’
We don’t know why his mentioning the child’s mound elicits such a vehement refusal. Her revulsion suggests that he’s committed some transgression so egregious that it deprives him of his right to speak. Agitated, she becomes active, takes control, slips under his arm and moves downstairs to be near the door, where her threats to leave subdue him and her daunting look flusters him. Her look elicits his involuntary display of dismay and confusion, showing that his bluster and his controlling manner conceal a profound vulnerability. His wife’s response is likewise conflicted. She daunts him, forbids him to speak, and yet feels herself to be so hemmed in by their circumstance that she can’t breathe. Struggling with both herself and him, she accuses him of being incapable of speaking meaningfully about their loss, and she blames this on his being a man. Further, her “Not you!” expresses both accusation and her disillusionment with him personally.
No longer hiding his vulnerability, he responds with deference and a pleading disclosure of his need for her:
‘Amy! Don’t go to someone else this time.
Listen to me. I won’t come down the stairs.’
He sat and fixed his chin between his fists.
There’s something I should like to ask you, dear.’
‘You don’t know how to ask it!’
‘Help me, then.”
Her fingers moved the latch for all reply.
‘My words are nearly always an offense.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you. But I might be taught
I should suppose. I can’t say I see how.
A man must partly give up being a man
Recognizing her power to go elsewhere, he pleads with her. Knowing she’s put off by his dominating manner and his threatening gestures, he tries to control himself. He calls her by name. He promises to give her more room, adopts a more receptive posture, and reveals his need to please her, to have her approve of him. Dropping his demanding tone, he proposes to ask her something. She angrily rebuffs him, re-emphasizing his incapacity: “You don’t know how to ask it!” He asks her to help him and she pauses on the latch, listening. Although he confesses his near-despair at finding a way to talk without offending her, he can’t relinquish his authority. He opens himself with “I might be taught,” only to close off at once with “I can’t say I see how.” He can’t admit that she has anything to teach him and laments that to do so would mean to become less a man.
Each supposes that biological sex limits the other‘s capacity to understand. She indicates that men lack the capacity for deep feeling or communication about it. He implies that women are innately unreasonable and that men’s superior reasoning gives them more mastery over emotion and justifies their authority. Nevertheless, he tries to negotiate with her, retreating from his earlier, imperious “You must tell me”:
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.’
She moved the latch a little.
We’ll see that his offer of hands off is misguided, that something different is required of him. It is nonetheless a concession on his part, but again he allows her no time to respond to his offer before he denigrates it. He opines that any arrangement that gives her a privileged space is contrary to living together in love. His renewed insistence that she see things on his terms puts her off again, and again she jiggles the latch. It works. He backtracks once more, and more fully humbles himself by pleading with her to open herself to him:
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.
Tell me about it if it’s something human.
Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out. Give me my chance.’
He sees that she’s come to see him as different from other folks. To counter, he invokes their shared humanity and implies that any divisive features might be overcome by attending to what they have in common. He pleads for a chance. But having once again made a moving appeal, he once again prevents her from responding and even pushes her farther away:
‘I do think, though, you overdo it a little.
What was it brought you up to think it the thing
To take your mother-loss of a first child
So inconsolably—in the face of love.
You’d think his memory might be satisfied—‘
He fails again to give credence to her view of things. He criticizes what he takes to be her too-long process of grieving, mistakenly presuming that he knows what her grief is about. He claims that his love for her ought to provide consolation, without considering whether she’s currently able to experience him as loving. His mention of her upbringing suggests that it was different from his own and that he recognizes such differences as formative. But instead of using this insight to seek entry into the world created by that background, he implies that her upbringing produced erroneous norms. Her reply is quick, accurate, and combative:
‘There you go sneering now.’
‘I’m not, I’m not!
You make me angry. I’ll come down to you.
God, what a woman!’
He denies sneering and professes that his words are born only of pain and anger, even while he belittles her again. “Coming down” refers to more than just their positions on the stair; he has, in fact, reverted to condescension—indeed, to sneering. But he also conveys how deeply he feels his grievance and hurt:
And it’s come to this.
A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
He protests again that he’s not allowed to speak of his own dead child, but acknowledges neither that he’s also preventing her from speaking nor that she could have reasons he might profitably discover.
Moved by his display of feeling and by her growing frustration at his arrogant refusal to credit her way of seeing things, his wife now reveals what has led her to doubt that he can talk about grief or any other feeling:
‘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 and leap in air,
Leap up, like that, like that, and land so lightly
And roll back down the mound beside the hole…’
Here’s her answer to her husband’s question about what she sees from out the window. What she sees is him, digging their child’s grave, and some dark meaning that she read in it. He’s been mistaken to attribute her grief simply to her mother-loss. Instead, what she revisits upon the stair is the traumatic loss occasioned by his alarming and, to her, incomprehensible behavior. She saw in it something that exposed a devastating lack of human feeling. A sacrilegious disrespect for the sanctity of mourning. She saw the gravel leaping into the air and landing lightly, suggesting life and dancing, opposite to death and the sorrow requisite for any claim to humanity. He became at that moment alien to her, a stranger:
‘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.’
Her stereotyped movements revisit the trauma she suffered then, and repeat her stunned effort to comprehend his behavior. It’s not obvious why the sight of his digging was so traumatic for her. Perhaps the open grave confronted her too abruptly and prematurely with the finality of their son’s death, a cruel confrontation with facts she was only slowly beginning to bear, her unreadiness lightly tossed aside like the leaping gravel. Her wound deepened when he came back into the kitchen, muttering to himself, and she overheard him:
‘Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voice
Out in the kitchen, and I don’t know why,
But I went near to see with my own eyes.
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about your everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry, for I saw it.’
His stained shoes concretize the moral transgression he committed in his grave-digging. Like a prosecutor she emphasizes how closely she observed him, citing evidence about the ordinariness of his actions, his coming in as if from any commonplace chore, brushing off some everyday task that had no claim to veneration, flaunting his indifference to her distress. He placed the shovel where it was ready at hand, added evidence that he was eager to bypass his duty to mourn with her and return to ordinary life.
He doesn’t know what she’s made of what she’s witnessed, and he’s surprisingly incurious about it. He ignores her distress and dislocation, and the wish to repair it that is also hidden from her: “I don’t know why. But I went near.” Nearer to him, to see him better. To understand. He hears only her accusation, and he despairs:
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
Now he has to recognize that what continues to trouble her is not simply mother-loss, but his behavior. Why doesn’t he ask her what she made of what she saw? Take advantage of the opening that she, at his demand, has given him? Her tone is indeed accusatory, but it contains an implicit appeal that he explain his so-disturbing behavior. He doesn’t respond to the plea within the accusation. She, on the other hand, ignores his anguish. She could take his distress as a response to feeling falsely accused and let it lead her to reconsider whether her rejection is entirely justified. Instead she treats his agitation as merely the guilty discomfort of a wrong-doer, and so she defends and further builds her case:
‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:
“Three foggy mornings and one rainy day
Will rot the best birch fence a man can build.”
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlor?
You couldn’t care! ...’
But even in defending, she opens a door for him. What did his words have to do with what was in the darkened parlor? Her rhetorical question is also a real question for her. She’s provided him a chance to explain himself, which he does not take up. On the other hand, his distress is also an invitation to her, to wonder whether birch fences and weather, and digging, mean something different to him than they do to her. That these actions and objects might instantiate the feelings that she believes he lacks. She misses not only the metaphorical but the corporeal connection between rotting fences and what was in the parlor. If she refrained from euphemism, called what was in the parlor a body, a connection would become painfully obvious. Her not doing so suggests that she still relives the need she felt then to protect herself from the full reality of their son’s death. Her husband’s silence encourages her not to re-evaluate what she felt then, to continue to believe what she already believes, and to feel confirmed in her isolation. All she can take from their interaction is what she took at that time, that grief is irredeemably lonely:
‘The nearest friends can go
With anyone to death, comes so far short
They might as well not try to go at all.
No, from the time that one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make a pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.’
We’re not told that the husband left their child to die alone, so she must be referring to her own going to suffer their child’s death, alone and unsupported in the parlor, herself sick to death with grief. She must have felt that she was dying with him. She goes on:
‘But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!’
While it’s true that he left her unnecessarily, her refusal to accept that grief can be lonely exposes an untested idealism. It’s as if she’s not previously encountered death, nor dealt with serious disappointments in human interaction, so as to learn from them that accommodation is sometimes necessary. Again, she seems young, inexperienced. Although she asserts that the unreliability of friends at the time of death is universal, she doesn’t exonerate him, since she blames him as the agent of her disillusionment. Nevertheless, she’s paused several times with her hand on the latch without actually leaving. Unfortunately, his response now proves that he truly doesn’t understand what she needs from him:
‘There, you have said it all and you feel better.
You won’t go now. You’re crying. Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up?’
He delivers the final blow to any hope of reconciliation, treating all she’s said as if it were only a discharge of pent up emotion, much as his digging had been a discharge for his grief, or his exclamation of being cursed a discharge of his dismay. He treats her speech as simply catharsis, without meaning, as if her very act of speaking is all that’s needed to heal them. He fails to register her plea that he find the implications in what she’s saying and come forward responsively, and so he unwittingly confirms that he doesn’t know how to speak about deep feelings.
Now he sees that someone’s coming for her, that she’s about to leave him. She recognizes the futility of further effort—“I must go”—though uttering a final wish that she could affect his understanding:
Amy! There’s someone coming down the road!’”
‘You—oh, you think the talk is all. I must go—
Somewhere out of this house. How can I make you-—’
In their failure to hear each other they regress to their earlier contest of wills, renewing their efforts to force the other to listen, to understand, to acquiesce: “How can I make you—.” He responds in kind, reverting to even more desperate and futile threats of force:
‘If—you—do!’ She was opening the door wider.
‘Where do you mean to go? First tell me that.
I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will—’
The poet leaves them here, suspended on the brink of dissolution of whatever bonds had held them together before the tragedy of their son’s burial. I imagine that her rescuer comes from her home, apparently within walking distance. The geographical distance between the worlds that formed them is small, but their emotional distance is now unbridgeably far.
But why unbridgeable? They both display an urgent need to reconnect, and they’ve disclosed so much about what divides them. Why don’t they take it farther? What if the husband were to ask his wife, “I see that something about my digging alarms you. What about it upsets you so?” Or if the wife were to say, “Husband, what were you thinking when you went to dig so hastily? Couldn’t you see that I needed more time to absorb our loss, more time with you?” Why didn’t they ask?
They could only ask if they each gave up their commitment to their own innocence. Asking implies that the other could have subjectively valid reasons to feel aggrieved and would express willingness to risk themselves in exploring them. Each would have to empathically experience the injuries they’ve inflicted, to inhabit for a time the version of themselves that exists in the other’s world. The husband would have to face that, however innocent his intentions, he did abandon his wife in the parlor, did fail to communicate his grief to her in ways she could understand, did wound her in her need to grieve more slowly. He’d have to accept that she reasonably expected some explanation, to see that consulting her would have let them share their grief and allowed her to tell him what she needed. He’d have to endure the recognition that he’s given her reason to see him as she now does: callous, self-centered, brutish.
The wife would have to face that she’s been impetuous to condemn him and thoughtless to persist in it. Her certainty that his behavior is simply the product of moral depravity has made her too reluctant to consider further evidence. She’s failed to register, for example, his description of the family graveyard in terms that suggest honor, rest, and love. She’s not considered that his tradition of mourning and burial could be honorable yet different from her own: that for her, burial is a distasteful menial job to be delegated to strangers; for him, a sacred duty to lay his son to rest among his family. She doesn’t consider that the lightness of the falling gravel could testify not to levity but to skill with his tools, and strength enhanced by the intensity of his grief. That rotting fences are existential matters to a farmer, apt metaphors to express grief and despair at the implacable forces of nature that have taken the life from a man’s son and will dissolve his body. The man returned to everyday concerns only to use them to express his defeat and loss. She’d have to face the hard truth that she’s been too ready to find the worst in him, and in this way she’s betrayed him. That she’s taken his behavior to be malicious when it was only uninformed and carelessly automatic. She would see that she’s given him reasons to see her as he now does: unthinking, judgmental, unfaithful.
Each would have to acknowledge that their own condemnation of the other was born of shock, a lack of understanding for unfamiliar behavior, and not from any thoughtful or justified reconsideration of the positive moral qualities they’d previously seen in each other. They’ve both been too quick to judge, and too slow to reconsider their verdicts in the light of what they’ve now heard and seen.
Going this far would lead to other disturbing realizations. The husband’s acknowledgement of his wife’s grievance would call into question other beliefs he’s used to buttress his authority. That she has nothing to teach him, for example. To support this stance he clings to the conviction that she is behaving irrationally by unduly prolonging her grief over their son’s death. He presumes that he is the better judge of what is appropriate to feel and for how long. He doesn’t reconsider even when she demonstrates that his attribution is mistaken: that her continuing distress is not about the death itself but about the grave. He treats his own actions as if they were self-explanatory and self-evidently justified, as if her disclosure that they upset her need not call out an explanation. Even recognizing that her norms were formed in different circumstances than his own, he treats them as undeserving of attention or respect.
He’d have to face the truth in his lament that to understand a woman he needs to become less a man. Seeing her point of view would indeed require him to sacrifice his taken-for-granted authority and his unquestioned confidence in the power of his reason, qualities that constitute his understanding of manhood. He’d be forced to acknowledge that he’s not her superior in the rational mastery of emotions. On the contrary, he’s prone to impulsivity. His need to immediately discharge intense feeling indeed led him to hurtfully rush the digging of the grave. The same need induced his threatening posture on the stair and when she finally leaves. He’s tried to control this behavior. She might help him learn to use words for this, to go beyond catharsis to communication. To find by this means less need for impulsive action and less temptation to use force. But these insights would subject him to the deflating knowledge that what’s grounded his previously unquestioned certainty is no more objective or valid or universal than what grounds hers. He’d have to give up the dominance he enjoys in his familiar moral and emotional landscape and surrender to participation in the disorienting novelty of hers.
It’s the same for her. She’s convinced that she’s his superior in emotional skill and moral acuity, convictions central to her feeling of being a woman. She would need to see that she’s wrong. She’d have to acknowledge that she lacked the life experience to hear the despair in his talk of fences. That she’s been insensitive. That she’s been blind, in fact, to his grief for their child and indifferent to his anguish over being misjudged. She’d learn that the inescapable humanity in her need to evade the finality of her loss undermines her claim to superior skill in addressing emotional matters. That the loneliness she’s blamed her husband for would have been alleviated if she had attuned herself more to his world and thereby come to see that his grief matched her own. In her rush to judgement, she abandoned him. To honor the validity of his autonomous experience she’d have to question the very perceptions that support her own estimation that she is right and good.
Any relationship can meet with three foggy mornings and a rainy day, when some unexpected and devastating event requires each person to become less of who they’d thought themselves to be, in order to respect and to absorb more of their partner’s world, newly revealed. This man and woman are stand-ins for all of us, so it behooves us to recognize how sturdy are the barricades that protect their mutual incomprehension. Each repeatedly ventures flawed but earnest efforts to contact the other; each repeatedly pulls back too soon. The obstacles to opening themselves are real. His presumption of masculine authority and hers of moral and emotional superiority are what has sustained each of them through their time of mourning and separation. To give up these reassuring certainties, however restrictive and ill-informed they may be, is a high price. Each would need to suffer the erosion of the ground that supports their trust in their own goodness. Only by weathering unnerving self-doubt and vulnerability might they survive their traumatic separation and emerge into a shared world where neither would be as alone or as devalued as they’ve imagined themselves to be since their estrangement.
If they had had more time to learn about each other before their crisis, more insight into the narrowness of their own histories, more prior engagement with people of dissimilar perspectives, or more tolerance for risk, they might have found the means to master their undeniable shock and fear and to rediscover their trust in each other. But these conditions did not obtain. Seeing what was at stake, we are left with compassion but also a warning, that an ordinary couple, abruptly separated by an extreme circumstance that exposed too suddenly the otherness that had lain unnoticed between them, could not relinquish the self-protecting certainties that kept them from finding each other again.