In this narrative poem, Frost describes a tense conversation between a rural husband and wife whose child has recently died. As the poem opens, the wife is standing at the top of a staircase looking at her child’s grave through the window. Her husband, at the bottom of the stairs, does not understand what she is looking at or why she has suddenly become so distressed. The wife resents her husband’s obliviousness and attempts to leave the house. The husband begs her to stay and talk to him about her grief; he does not understand why she is angry with him for manifesting his grief in a different way. Inconsolable, the wife lashes out at him, convinced of his apathy toward their dead child. The husband mildly accepts her anger, but the rift between them remains. She leaves the house as he angrily threatens to drag her back by force.
In terms of form, this poem is a dramatic or pastoral lyric poem, using free-form dialogue rather than strict rhythmic schemes. Frost generally uses five stressed syllables in each line and divides stanzas in terms of lines of speech.
The poem describes two tragedies: first, the death of a young child, and second, the death of a marriage. As such, the title “Home Burial,” can be read as a tragic double entendre. Although the death of the child is the catalyst of the couple’s problems, the larger conflict that destroys the marriage is the couple’s inability to communicate with one another. Both characters feel grief at the loss of the child, but neither is able to understand the way that their partner chooses to express their sorrow.
The setting of the poem – a staircase with a door at the bottom and a window at the top – automatically sets up the relationship between the characters. The wife stands at the top of the stairs, directly in front of the window overlooking the graveyard, while the husband stands at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at her. While the couple shares the tragedy of their child’s death, they are in conflicting positions in terms of dealing with their grief.
With her position closest to the window, the wife is clearly still struggling with her grief over the loss of her baby. Incapable of moving on at this point in her life, the wife defines her identity in terms of the loss and would rather grieve for the rest of her life than grieve as a sort of pretense. The husband has dealt with his sorrow more successfully, as evidenced by his position at the bottom of the staircase, close to the door and the outside world. As a farmer, the husband is more accepting of the natural cycle of life and death in general, but also chooses to grieve in a more physical manner: by digging the grave for his child. Ironically, the husband’s expression of his grief is completely misunderstood by the wife; she views his behavior as a sign of his callous apathy.
Ultimately, each character is isolated from the other at opposite ends of the staircase. In order for the marriage to succeed, each character must travel an equal distance up or down the staircase in order to meet the other. The husband attempts to empathize with his wife, moving up the staircase toward her and essentially moving backward in his own journey towards acceptance of his child’s death. Even so, the wife is unable to empathize with her husband and only moves down the staircase after he has already left his position at the foot.
When the wife moves down the staircase, she assumes the upper hand in the power struggle between the two by ensuring that her husband cannot move between her and the door and stop her from leaving. Without the physical capacity to keep her from leaving, the husband must attempt to convince her to stay through communication - something that, as the poem demonstrates, has been largely unsuccessful throughout their marriage.