An Analysis of Imagery and Setting in Robert Frost’s Home Burial
Robert Frost is considered one of the greatest American poets of the 20th century. His writings have been lauded for their pastoral imagery, emotional depth, and their masterful use of America colloquialism. Frost’s poem, Home Burial, is an exquisite combination of these elements, exploring the depths of emotional suffering and its effect on marriage. The poem is framed in the form of a deeply emotional dialogue between husband and wife over the coldness of their marriage in the wake of the death of their young son. Home Burial is Robert Frost’s semi-autobiographical retelling of his youngest son’s death and the affect this tragic event had on his own marriage. Robert Frost’s poem, Home Burial, uses the setting and exquisite imagery in order to develop the relationship between Amy and the husband.
The poem Home Burial takes place in the rural New England country side. The setting is an important part of understanding the poem, as the New England tradition of home burial takes a prominent role in the poem’s story. Back in the 1800’s, it was common for deceased family members to be buried near the family home. Since homes usually stayed within the family, small cemeteries spanning several generations were a common sight. At the very beginning of Home Burial, Amy is looking outside of the window, seeing the small family graveyard that lies on the outskirts of the house. Her unnamed husband describes this small plot of land as, “the place where my people can be found”, confirming that this is indeed a family cemetery.
Amy is very much distraught by the sight of the graveyard, while her husband is more comfortable with the idea. As she looks at the graves with a terror stricken face, Amy’s husband tells her, “Broad shouldered little slabs there in the sunlight on the hill side. We haven’t to mind those.” The way the husband speaks about the graves tells the reader of the husband’s familiarity with the sight of the tombstones, and how its a normal sight for him. This may imply that Amy is actually a foreigner, and thus it may be disturbing to her to have a constant reminder of the dead. If she came from the city, this would explain why Amy finds burying her own child to be a disturbing event (Burns 11). This implies that Amy is not very used to the New England tradition of home burial.
When Home Burial was written in 1914, child mortality rates were extremely high. It was common for children under the age of five years old to die due to disease. The poem presented a very real fear to the early 20th century reader, that they may indeed have to bury their young child. The poem’s setting gives the reader insight into how the different characters in the poem experience their loss. The husband had already seen three generations of family buried in the same plot he had buried his child, so the reader can surmise that he is intimately familiar with death. Amy on the other hand is mortified by the constant reminder of the graves.
The New England setting of the poem helps to make apparent the differences between the two characters, which sets the conflict in the rest of the work. This parallels Robert Frost’s own experience when he had to bury his youngest child Elliot at the age of eight years old. It is likely that Frost himself employed home burial, as his family lived in rural New England. This experience would bring significant strain to him and his wife’s marriage, inspiring the events of Home Burial.
Home Burial uses strong imagery to show the tension between Amy and her husband. The poem is told in the form of a conversation between the husband and wife. As such, Frost’s description of the character’s actions, feelings, and movements helps give the reader an insight into the characters beliefs, thoughts, and the nature of their relationship. Both characters are suffering from the loss of their young son, but how they grieve differently is the main cause of the conflict between them. The character’s action are full of meaning; from how the husband buries his son, Amy’s reactions to her husband, and the graveyard imagery used.
At the beginning of the poem, when the husband notices Amy looking out through the window, he asks, “What is it you see?” The poem then describes the husband begin mounting up the stairs as Amy cowers. This gives the reader insight into the relationship between the husband and wife. He is shown as the oppressor, and she as the oppressed (Little 111). The husband completely overpowers and subdues his wife, telling Amy to declare what she sees, instead of phrasing it in the form of a question. “I will find out now, you must tell me dear,” the husband declares as he makes his way up the stairs. When he realizes that Amy is looking out at the mound, Amy pleads with the husband to stop. The husband’s powerful posturing, such as putting his knuckles to his chin, betray his true feelings. He himself is suffering greatly from the loss of his child, saying “Let me into your grief. I’m not so much unlike other folks as your standing there apart would make me out.” The husband’s aggressive body language and angry demeanor is simply how he expresses his grief.
Amy on the other hand grieves very differently. The image of the husband burying their dead child weighs heavily on Amy’s mind. The reader is given insight into this through her description of how she sees the burial happen. “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. I thought, Who is that man? I didn’t know you.” To Amy the husband buried their child with little to no feeling. He does the act in a matter of fact fashion, which to Amy seems almost inhuman. His words after the burial only serve to condemn him further in her mind, “Three foggy mornings and one rainy day will rot the best birch fence that a man can build.” While the husband is speaking metaphorically about how time (the rain) destroys all of man’s accomplishments (his son), Amy takes him to be speaking literally about a fence. This infuriates her, as she feels as though the husband doesn’t care about the death of their son. What she doesn’t understand is that he is grieving in his own way. This inability to understand each other is what drives the conflict between the two characters (Faggen 128).
In summation, the poem Home Burial uses the setting and imagery in order to develop the relationship between Amy and the husband. The rural New England setting is important, because the tradition of home burial is what initially exposes the differences between Amy and the husband. Amy is implied to be a foreigner, and thus she is not as intimately familiar with death as her husband. This difference is one of the reasons that the characters are unable to acknowledge the others form of grieving. Frost’s descriptions of the husband gives the reader insight into how he grieves. Unlike Amy, the husband does not overly exhibit emotion or talk about his pain. His pain is shown through his anger and physically imposing demeanor. The inability to understand each other is the main failure in their relationship. Robert Frost does an amazing job of bringing the reader into the intimate lives of these two characters through good use of setting and exquisite use of imagery.
Burns, Allen. The Thematic Guide to American Poetry. Greenwood Press, 2002. 90-94. Print.
Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost:The Challenge of Darwin. University of Michigan Press, 1997. 215-245. Print.
Little, Michael. How to Write: About Robert Frost. Bloom’s Literary Criticism, 2010. 100- 114. Print.
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