“Home Burial” by Robert Frost
There’s some context here that should probably be put in place before you start Frost’s poem. As you may realize, there were/are places and times where cemeteries as we know them today didn’t exist.
And during these times when there weren’t massive cemeteries with thousands of bodies buried beneath, the dead were simply buried on one’s own property. It was a home burial.
And many of the home cemeteries contained children. In 1870, the mortality rate in England was 32% before a person would reach the age of 20. In 1920, roughly 10% of English infants would die before they reached the ago of one. In 2001, roughly .05% of infants under the age of one died (that’s 5 out of a 1000 infants).
Today, the death of children is the exception. The time period in which Frost is writing his poem, it was commonplace.
The story starts out with the husband catching his wife looking from the second story window at a freshly dug grave in the back yard.
He saw her from the bottom of the stairsBefore she saw him. She was starting down,Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.She took a doubtful step and then undid itTo raise herself and look again. He spokeAdvancing toward her: ‘What is it you seeFrom 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, refused him any helpWith the least stiffening of her neck and silence.She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,Blind creature; and awhile he didn’t see.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 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 sunlightOn the sidehill. We haven’t to mind those.But I understand: it is not the stones,But the child’s mound—’
‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.
She withdrew shrinking from beneath his armThat 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 know rightly whether any man can.’
‘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 anythingSo as to please you. But I might be taughtI should suppose. I can’t say I see how.A man must partly give up being a manWith women-folk. We could have some arrangementBy which I’d bind myself to keep hands offAnything 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. ‘Don’t—don’t go.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 muchUnlike other folks as your standing thereApart would make me out. Give me my chance.I do think, though, you overdo it a little.What was it brought you up to think it the thingTo take your mother-loss of a first childSo inconsolably—in the face of love.You’d think his memory might be satisfied—’
‘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! And it’s come to this,A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
‘You can’t because you don’t know how to speak.If you had any feelings, you that dugWith 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 lightlyAnd 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 stairsTo look again, and still your spade kept lifting.Then you came in. I heard your rumbling voiceOut 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 shoesOf the fresh earth from your own baby’s graveAnd talk about your everyday concerns.You had stood the spade up against the wallOutside there in the entry, for I saw it.’
‘I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.’
‘I can repeat the very words you were saying:“Three foggy mornings and one rainy dayWill rot the best birch fence a man can build.”Think of it, talk like that at such a time!What had how long it takes a birch to rotTo do with what was in the darkened parlor?You couldn’t care! The nearest friends can goWith anyone to death, comes so far shortThey might as well not try to go at all.No, from the time when one is sick to death,One is alone, and he dies more alone.Friends make pretense of following to the grave,But before one is in it, their minds are turnedAnd making the best of their way back to lifeAnd living people, and things they understand.But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief soIf I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!’
‘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.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—’
‘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!—’
There’s so many dynamics at play in this poem. And there’s so many different thoughts you can take away.
My main thought is practical: death in a family can be the death of a family. We’ve all seen couples who have been separated by death. The stress of processing grief together simply pulls them apart. There’s a extreme individuality to grief and when two people must process the grief TOGETHER, at the same time, there’s a tendency for Frost’s poem to unfold in real life.
The individualistic nature of grief demands a couple be honest, willing to communicate and able to find an out. As disturbing (an stereotypical) as Frost’s poem is, it does display something REAL.
The bottom line is this: grief shared is grief diminished. If a couple has a community where they can share, there’s a better chance they will find a healthy manner to walk through the stages of grief both apart and together.