Friday, January 25, 2008

The Use of Force

Here are some thoughts on Robert Frost's Home Burial.

This poem is a domestic drama about grief, the way it creates a wall between a young couple, and what this reveals about both of them.

The wife is Amy, the husband goes unnamed. Some time before the poem begins, they have lost a child, which the husband proceeded to bury in a plot near the house. Ever since then, Amy has been unconsolable, partly out of frustration, since her husband has withstood the loss with comparable calm and reserve. She needs to talk, to communicate, to feel; he on the other hand seems to regard this tragedy as something best dealt with by stoic endurance. Since Amy can't talk to her husband, she's been going out to talk with other neighbors -- wives, possibly, although there's a hint that she's having an affair, that she's found someone who can give her the emotional sustenance she isn't receiving at home.

As the poem begins, Amy is upstairs, looking out the window at her child's fresh burial mound, and he is at the bottom of the stairs, watching her. She's lost in her own private world, probably has been for some time, and he approaches gingerly to find out what she's looking at. When he comes up to her -- where she sits silently, cowering, refusing to speak -- he thinks he understands.

“You don’t,” she challenged. “Tell me what it is.”

His response, as expected, isn't quite what she wants: he sees, but doesn't see. Where Amy is likely -- and I say likely because we can read her mind without her ever having to express it -- thinking of the child she's lost, her husband is looking at the view in a far more practical way: that the child's grave has to be looked after where others in the family plot do not. He suddenly catches himself in this observation, suspecting that maybe it sounded a little too unfeeling:

But I understand: it is not the stones,
But the child’s mound——”

but it's too late for him to announce his sympathy. Amy flees from him.

“Can’t a man speak of his own child he’s lost?”

Her answer: "I don’t know rightly whether any man can.”
Amy is no longer interested in what he has to say, maybe because it's been so long in coming, but also because he's a man. To her mind, he can't feel what a mother feels. She goes looking for her hat; she need to see someone else.

Now the husband wants to talk, because the silence and Amy's bitter coldness toward him has gotten to be too much. He realizes that their life together is threatened, and he actually wants to learn how it is he's supposed to speak with her.

"My words are nearly always an offence.
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
With women-folk. 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.”

The two of them must be able to speak freely, and they aren't speaking at all, least of all about this one tragedy that separates them.

He begs her not to leve, to talk with him and not someone else:

Let me into your grief. I’m not so much
Unlike other folks as your standing there
Apart would make me out.

But then he blows it; he says she's overdoing this griving thing.

He isn't wrong. Part of the success of this poem is that it's about a tragedy that cuts both ways, and what begins as a poem that contrasts this woman who is fully in touch with her emotions with a man who is in denial ultimately reveals that part of the reason why he can't put his feelings on display is that Amy has sucked the life out of them. She's turned grief into a contest where she's the winner and always will be, and it frustrates his own attempts at self-expression.

Amy is frustrated, too, and she has a need to lash out, and she focuses on the fact that it was her husband who dug the grave. This is a memory that has stuck with her and pained her in the weeks since, that he dug the grave as if it was just an ordinary task.

From his perspective, it definitely was a task, but not an ordinary one: a painful one that simply needed doing, and it was his his lot that it fell to him )(as was no doubt customary among many New England families in 1915.) Maybe Amy would have been happier if he fell on the ground and said no, I can't bury my own child. Instead, he dug the grave vigorously -- not because he enjoyed it, but because it had to be done and he wanted to get it over with as soon as possible.

To make things worse, from Amy's point of view, once it was over and dne with, he came in and chatted about everyday things. Again, from his perspective, he's just getting through the worst day of his life as well as he can, trying to look past what he can't look past. He talks about how the damp weather is rotting a birch fence -- for her, the worst subject imaginable, because the only thing she can focus on is the reality of what happened.

Amy is steeped in the grim reality; her husband knows that if he gets mired in it, he'll never get out. Someone has to move forward.

“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.’
Think of it, talk like that at such a time!
What had how long it takes a birch to rot
To do with what was in the darkened parlour.
You couldn’t care! 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 when one is sick to death,
One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretence 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.
But the world’s evil. I won’t have grief so
If I can change it. Oh, I won’t, I won’t!”

Amy is standing at the door, crying and threatening to leave. Her husband tries to calm her down, telling her in his own way that she's all talked out, and that she's making what passes for a scene in their small community. ("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!—”

What does she mean by "you think the talk is all"? Is she waving the possibility of adultery in her husband's face, a suggestion that she needs more than words? The husnand gets the message: he'll follow her and drag her back by force if he has to.

The death has opened a rift between oe person's need to connect and another's need to withdraw.

Force is an interesting word. It was force, and will, that made him get through his child's death, and force and will are the only means by which he can now hold his marriage together.

Neither can get through to the other: neither the forcefulness of feeling on her part, or the forcefulness of will and determination on his.

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