“In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.”
– Robert Frost
Grief, a constant in genetic counseling, is a normal reaction to death, the loss of hopes and dreams, suffering, shattered self-images, disrupted relationships, and the other emotional fallout of genetic disease. As part of our counseling work, we try to help patients express and explore their grief so that they can heal as much as possible and move on with their lives.
In his 1914 poem Home Burial, Robert Frost poignantly observes – as many genetic counselors have – how grief can follow different emotional arcs in men and women. The poem is set in the indoor staircase and entry of a house, and is essentially a dialogue between a married couple who have recently lost their firstborn child. The loss of her son is so overwhelming to the wife, Amy, that it is beyond verbalization; life is not going on for her. Her (unnamed) husband, in her eyes, does not have the same profound sense of loss. Both are profoundly sad but their different grieving styles have created a palpable tension in their relationship. The title of the poem refers as much to the child’s grave as to the emotions that are buried in the home.
The text is taken from Collected Poems of Robert Frost, Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1930. I have added (H) and (W) to indicate when the husband and wife are speaking, respectively. To appreciate its full depth, power, and beauty, shut your door, take a quiet break, and read it in its entirety. A few times. A well-done video about Frost’s life includes an excellent dramatization of Home Burial that would integrate nicely into a class discussion about grief. Incidentally, Robert Lee Frost, the quintessential Yankee poet, was born in San Francisco and was supposedly named after the great Southern general Robert E. Lee.
As the poem opens, the husband spots his wife at the top of the stairs where she is once again gazing out of a window. The husband climbs the stairs and demands:
(H) ‘What is it you see from up there always?—For I want to know….’
She, in her place, refused him any help….
She let him look, sure that he wouldn’t see,
Blind creature; and a while he didn’t see.
Eventually though he realizes that she has been staring at the grave of their child:
But at last he murmured ‘Oh’ and again, ‘Oh.’
(W)‘What is it – what?’
(H) ‘Just that I see.’
(W)’You don’t,’ she challenged. ‘Tell me what it is.’
(H)’But I understand; it is … the child’s mound –‘
The mention of their child’s grave triggers a flood of emotions for Amy:
(W)‘Don’t, don’t, don’t, don’t,’ she cried.
And turned on him with such a daunting look,
He said twice over before he knew himself:
(H)‘Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?’
(W) ‘I don’t know rightly that any man can.’
As she stands ready to escape out of the house, he pleads for her help so that he can understand her better, but is rebuffed:
(H) ‘There’s something I should like to ask you dear.’
(W) ‘You don’t know how to ask it.’
(H) ‘Help me, then.’
Her fingers moved the latch for reply.
(H) ‘My words are nearly always an offence.
I don’t know how to speak of anything
So as to please you…. A man must partly give up being a man
Amy once again tries to leave the house:
She moved the latch a little.
(H)‘Don’t – don’t go.
Don’t carry it to someone else this time.’
Desperate to get through to her, he pleads:
(H) ‘Tell me about it….Let me into your grief.’
And again he cries out
(H) ‘A man can’t speak of his own child that’s dead.’
She can’t understand his ability to bury their child and get on with life, and anger and disbelief pour out:
(W) ‘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;
Making the gravel leap and leap in the 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 don’t know you…..
You could sit there with the stains on your shoes
Of the fresh earth from your own baby’s grave
And talk about everyday concerns.
You had stood the spade up against the wall
Outside there in the entry….’
At this point, the husband thinks that Amy has finally aired her emotions and is ready to reconcile herself with the death of her child:
(H)‘There, you have said it all and you feel better.
Close the door.
The heart’s gone out of it: why keep it up.’…
(W) ‘You – oh, you think the talk is all. ‘
But Frost is not about to make it easy for the couple or the reader. This grief is too profound to be resolved with the bursting of Amy’s emotional dam. As the poem ends, Amy walks out the door:
(W) ‘I must go —…’
(H) ‘I’ll follow and bring you back by force. I will! —‘
The poem, the story, the couple’s relationship, and the reader’s desire for a happy ending are left hanging, exhausted and unresolved, on that simple dash.