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Analysis of Poem 'Home Burial' by Robert Frost

Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost

Robert Frost

'Home Burial' Summary

'Home Burial' is a dramatic dialogue poem that details the emotional and psychological reactions of a rural couple following the death and subsequent burial of their young son.

The poem is set in the family home, possibly a farmhouse in rural New England, so the wife and husband live away from any community and bear the burden of their loss fully. The woman's name is Amy, but the man and the child remain anonymous.

Reading through this poem, written in blank verse, the reader becomes part of a short, intense scene from a play. The imagery is clear, the characters in position - what follows is an increasingly serious drama, the dialogue switching from man to woman as the narration progresses.

  • So the main theme of Home Burial is grief through family loss, of how two distraught adults, man and wife, lose the ability to communicate when faced with the loss of a young loved one.
  • Of more intrigue is the idea that the couple's marriage had cracks in it prior to the child's death. Some of the early dialogue suggests that the woman isn't too impressed with the man and vice versa. Deep-seated feelings have been brought to the surface by their unfortunate loss.

This is a subject Robert Frost had first-hand experience with, having lost a son aged 4 in the year 1900. The tragic death haunted him and his wife Elinor for years, which is why he would never read this poem aloud (as he related to biographer Lawrance Thompson, it was 'too sad' to read). Between 1905 and 1926, he wrote 22 dialogue poems.

Both Frost and his wife believed in the power of conversation as a means to overcome misunderstanding. In the poem, Frost explores this theory of speech - 'All truth is dialogue' he maintained - both characters attempt to work through their grief with the spoken word, but, in the end, without success.

As the poem moves along a tightrope of tension the tone changes as the man and wife struggle to find a shared solace.

The man cannot understand the woman's pent-up emotion and unwillingness to open up; the woman is inwardly outraged by her husband's going on about fences in the immediate aftermath of the burial.

And when the conversation touches on the prickly subject of sex within the marriage, the dilemma seems to deepen.

Both want what the other cannot give. Both need sympathy but there is no outsider, no one available to offer them counselling, and no mention of a higher power such as a Christian God.

  • It's this to and fro dissatisfaction that eats away at Amy and her man until they both start to crack. The wife feels a need to get out of the stifling atmosphere of the home, the husband ends up threatening his wife if she dares to venture outside.

A tense and torn relationship results and the reader is left to ponder on the final outcome. What makes the poem of relevance still is its detailed focus on the modern partnership when it comes to family deaths and alienation.

Although a hundred years or more have passed since the poem's first appearance, the dialogue maintains its freshness and validity. Readers continue to debate the issues around death, concentrating on Amy's grief as a mother in contrast with the frustration felt by the reasoning father.

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Line By Line Analysis

'Home Burial' has a total of 120 lines which includes both dialogue and narration. It reads like a scene from a play, Frost's astute use of blank verse (unrhymed pentameters) perfect for the dialogue of man and wife as they come to terms with the bereavement.

The syntax, the way clauses and grammar combine, is straightforward enough. Frost's 'sound of sense' (how he ordered the language to bring textured and unusual sounds to the fore) isn't so prevalent.

In this poem, the emphasis is on the dialogue and the management of tension, how the man and woman articulate their feelings.

Lines 1 - 17

This is the first block of text. It begins with the narrator describing how the husband first sees his wife at the top of the stairs. She's about to descend, having looked through the top window out to where her child is now buried.

The initial five lines are third-person narrated, setting the scene. The tone is neutral at this point.

Then the husband's voice is heard first, halfway through line six. His tone is more questioning as he seeks to learn what his wife has been looking at. That phrase 'up there always' suggests that she's been up there on several occasions.

As she hesitantly descends she sits down, somewhat exhausted. He climbs the stairs, demanding to know just what it is she sees.

This puts the husband in an assertive role. He wants to know the answer. His wife is a little cowed as he looks over her. Her expression has altered. She's no longer fearful but fed up with the whole situation.

The husband too looks through the window and attempts grasp the scene. The wife is silent but the narrative suggests that she thinks him a 'blind creature', that is, incapable of seeing anything the way she sees things. This is the first hint that the couple's relationship isn't all it should be.

The 17th line has 'Oh', and again, Oh.' as the husband comes to realize what it is he can see.

Lines 18 - 32

Lines 18 -20 reflect the antagonistic relations between the two. He says he sees but the wife is adamant that he does not.

The next eleven lines are given over to the husband as he tries to describe what he sees and to put this into context as a man.

In the past, he hasn't noticed that the window frame holds within it the family grave plot (that word wonted means to become habituated to something, he just got used to not seeing how it was framed).

With an eye for detail, the husband describes the gravestones he sees - 4 in total - plus the freshly made mound where the child is buried. Could it be that the man's plain language and emphasis on the stones reflect an inability to sense the emotive aspect of that mound?

It's as if all he sees is the physical - he does not respond to the mound in the way the woman does. To her, it represents total loss and sadness, perhaps disbelief. To him, all it is a new addition to the plot.

This perhaps is being a little unkind to the husband, but the wife's sudden emotional retort in line 32 certainly suggests that he is a dry, rational kind of person. And she doesn't want to hear any more from him:

'Don't, don't, don't, don't, she cried.

Lines 33 - 47

The tension increases as the wife moves further downstairs, away from her husband. That daunting look (daunting - an expression of fear and worry). The husband then asks, almost rhetorically, if a man can talk about the death of a son in a woman's presence?

Her reply to this is cutting and straight to the point. Some might even say cruel:

'Not you!...

She threatens to leave the house; she just wants out at this moment in time. The husband's reaction gives the reader another hint that possible confrontation has happened before between them....'Amy, don't go to someone else this time...

He pleads, wanting to ask a question. But for the third time (You don't....don't, don't) she shuns any positive interaction:

'You don't know how to ask it.'

Is there no way back for this man and wife? In line 47 she's ready to lift the latch on the door and go seek help or some empathy.

Lines 48 - 74

The wife is threatening to leave the house, the husband doesn't want her to go. At this juncture the reader is suspended - the whole marriage seems at risk, the relationship beyond repair.

Desperate to try and make sense of the situation the man explains his position. According to him, everything he says to the wife is deemed wrong and offensive. But he wants to learn a different way if he can. He's not optimistic about this.

His explanation deepens and widens to take in all relationships between men and women. He attempts a clumsy negotiation - which includes an arrangement related to sexual matters - wrapped up in folk wisdom.

Are they in love? Are they out of love? Could they exist in a loving relationship without physical intimacy as part of an arrangement? It's getting a bit confusing and messy.

The wife wants to go. He becomes increasingly desperate.

He gets personal. He's willing to change. He's not the man she thinks him to be. Why seek help from others when he is there. 'Let me into your grief'...he pleads.

All this time the couple must be studying one another, wrestling with emotion and grief. She's still near the door, he's on the stairs looking down.

Then he switches the focus from himself and onto the woman, which perhaps is one of the most devastating lines, line 65:

I do think, though, you overdo it a little.

The next four lines reinforce the idea that the man completely fails to understand the woman's grief. His words show he has little or no empathy for her. She is inconsolable and it is this that alienates the rational man.

Her outburst confirms, in line 70, perhaps long-standing tensions around this issue:

There you go sneering now!

He flatly denies this. I'm not. I'm not! It's his anger, stirred up by the woman's wanting to leave, that is blurring things. He claims he wants to talk things through - but the emphasis on the word man turns this into a kind of battle of the sexes.

Lines 75 - 92

The wife has a go back at the husband and claims that he doesn't know how to speak, quite a statement. She then says he has no feelings, which gets to the nub of the matter....she is emotionally involved to the core, he cannot express or has no deep feelings about the loss.

There follows the wife's account of him digging the grave. She is looking through the same window, watching his actions as the gravel and soil are flung up with the spade.

It's at this point that she starts to doubt if she really knows the man in front of her anymore. And when the digging is finished and he returns to the house to clean up she hears him complaining about 'everyday concerns.'

Lines 93 - 94

These two lines are probably delivered by the husband but in the poem it is unclear. Mention of the word God seems to come from the man.

Lines 95 - 111

Amy repeats what the man said when he was in the entry cleaning up. It's to do with the weather and birch fences rotting. This to the wife is just unbelievable. How could the husband, the father, be worried about birch fences when he'd just dug the grave in readiness for the body of his recently deceased young son?

She compares her husband to friends who may attend a funeral but not really be involved in the grief. They come out of respect for the dead yet are already thinking about the present life and all the things in it.

So, the reader is brought along on this short intense journey through a sad episode in a couple's life. It's clear now that the man has no empathy for his wife's emotional upset and that the wife cannot comprehend the almost callous approach, or what she perceives as the callous reaction of her husband.

Lines 112 - 115

The husband thinks it is all over now that she has opened up her heart. He still doesn't show sympathy; he continues at a distance.

What he does exhibit is the need to control - he doesn't want her to leave the house.

At that moment he sees someone coming down to their house, a useful distraction perhaps.

Lines 116 - 117

Exasperated, the wife is intent on leaving. She cannot make her husband feel her grief. He just won't or can't come to grips with a mother's sense of loss. Perhaps if he'd been more tender, less controlling, things might have turned out different.

Lines 118 - 120

Finally, as she starts to open the door he threatens to bring her back by using force if needs be.

What Is The Tone?

The tone of 'Home Burial' has subtle changes throughout the poem. Although the reader is aware of the grief the couple share, the manner in which the man and wife communicate with each other produces both anger, frustration and denial.

So the tone is at times tense, the atmosphere bristling as the wife threatens to leave the house and the husband implores her not to.

This tension in turn creates alienation, misunderstanding and despair. The reader is in the middle of this scene, aware of the woman's deep-seated grief and inability to express fully her feelings, whilst the man seems insensitive despite him saying that he wants to learn from his wife.

Who Is The Speaker?

The poem has three speakers:

  • The third-person narrator begins the poem, describing the man and woman on the stairs. This objective narration continues as the poem progresses, with dialogue in between.
  • The husband is the second speaker.
  • The wife is the third.


100 essential Modern Poems, Ivan Dee, Joseph Parisi, 2005

Norton Anthology, Norton, 2005

© 2019 Andrew Spacey

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