Robert Burns Poems
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.
Humanity’s Relationship with the Natural World: A Comparison of The Book of Genesis and the Poetry of Robert Burns
When discussing the relationship between humanity and the wider natural world, the biblical work of the book of Genesis and Robert Burns’ adjoining poems To a Mouse and To a Louse arguably offer a possibly insight into the development of mankind – specifically its own opinion of its station in the world as a whole entity. Coincidentally, the discussion surrounding man’s relationship with the natural world largely hinges upon humanity’s own characteristic nature; in that there are some curious parallels between the presentation of God the Creator in the Old Testament of the Bible, and Burns’ portrayal of man in a newly emerging modern world. Greenstein contests that ‘we are none of us, even on our good days, God’ (p.1) and this contention – even in a secular sense – may be largely played into question when deciphering humanity’s seemingly superior regard for their own race above others in the animal kingdom. How much weight should be placed on the religious theory that ‘God created man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27) and has humanity fundamentally distanced itself from the natural world entirely in its plight for increasing modernity in a newfound urban age? It is largely equitable to arguable that competition and the Darwinist ideology surrounding the prospect of the survival of the fittest is simultaneously both a flaw and a virtue in human nature, but it seems yet unclear whether this strife for excellence and perfection distances us from the natural world, or bring us closer to it.
When treating the biblical book of Genesis as a literary facet of its own, the theme of the natural world may simply be encapsulated in that what God has created. The narrative’s most curious and questionable paradox centers on the creation story itself – namely God’s choice of inspiration for the creation of humans themselves. The King James Version of the Holy Bible reads that ‘God created man in his own image’ (Genesis 1:27), which causes rather a problem when attempting to align a sort of ranking of world order to the animal kingdom and human beings. The phrasing of the narrative may be taken to indicate that human beings are to be the metaphorical gods of the earth when read out of the already definitive religious contexts of God’s superiority to all other things in the universe. One of the more defining characteristics of God in the Old Testament as a whole is largely his anthropomorphized nature in that when compared with his reincarnation as the perhaps one dimensionally pure and good Jesus Christ in the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament does largely align with more human characteristics in his more malevolent and dictatorial complex. This is most prominently shown in Chapter 6 of Genesis in which ‘God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually’ (Genesis 6:5) which ultimately topples the image of an omnipresent and all-knowing God who now seemingly holds the same ability for human error as we do. Another contradictory facet of God’s actions in the Old Testament and specifically the book of Genesis is his resolution to destroy humanity: ‘And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them.’ (Genesis 6:7). Greenstein’s comment on this section of Genesis reveals that in his mind ‘God appears in Gen. 6:1- 4 as a parent who has either failed to set limits for one’s children or failed to exert control over one’s libidinous sons’ (p.12). This likening of God to the anthropomorphized and very human parent fundamentally may reveal a very flawed and human God of the Old Testament and if considering this God to be human-like, this serves as a convenient cornerstone when comparing the role of humanity in Robert Burns’ poem To a Mouse.
It is interesting to perform critical analysis when reading Burns’ poetry whilst treating the biblical book of Genesis as a lens as a means to draw parallels between humanity’s modernity of the urbanizing eighteenth century and the God of the Old Testament as he dictates over earth as a somewhat hyperbolically calamitous overlord. Both the book of Genesis and Burns’ poem To a Mouse arguably present an anthropomorphic sense of superiority to the natural world with God acting as the omnipotent creator of the universe alongside a flourishing and inventive human race acting as the main source of creation in their own separate microcosm with such innovations as Volta’s chemical battery and so on. The macrocosmic tone of the book of Genesis seems entirely absent when reading To a Mouse in which Burns’ persona concentrates their poetic narrative upon the ‘wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie’ (Burns), thus placing heavy emphasis and importance upon a seemingly insignificant facet of the universe and subsequently the natural world order. Burns’ poetic voice seemingly goes on to appeal specifically to humanity’s malevolent and volatile arrogance, which bode similar to that of the God we are presented with in the book of Genesis, in their abilities to modernize over that of the animal kingdom and the mouse’s skilful building on his nest, in that ‘man’s dominion has broken Nature’s social union’ (Burns). This links to the idea that humanity have perhaps somehow developed a sense of autonomy over the natural world, deeming themselves god-like figures in the realms of earth. Carol McGuirk’s interpretation in that ‘when Burns’ farmer spares the field mouse, he is acting as though there is only one field mouse in the world — his field mouse’ (p.510) arguably aligns with the contention that humanity has developed and perhaps forceable assumed a superior and godlike role from the Old Testament in the natural world – a God that seemingly arbitrarily destroys and creates at his own will; just as farmers may choose to destroy the nest of a mouse in one foul swoop of their plough.
The issue of urbanization and modernity of humanity and its seemingly unsuited correlation with that of the natural world’s harmony is yet another stark feature of Burns’ poem To a Mouse and this is fundamentally illustrated in the destruction of the mouse’s home at the unyielding and unsympathetic hands of the farmer’s plough. Perkins hypothesises that ‘increasing urbanization gradually removed a large part of the population from direct experience of farming…This promoted the nostalgic, sentimental, and idealized version of nature that we now call Romantic’ (p.2). In this instance one may align the act of farming to represent the entirety of the natural world and its many intricate and functional simplicities whilst simultaneously doing the same to the motif of the plough; in having it fundamentally represent urbanization and the beginnings of the later industrialization period of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries respectively. The poetic persona in To a Mouse does go on to label the modern instrument a ‘cruel coulter’ after it ‘blast[s]’ (Burns) through the ‘Mousie’ home. Burns’ persona in this poem seems to pine for the simpler days and the destruction of this ‘wee beastie’s’ (L.1) home has ultimately confirmed that not even technology can overcome ‘the best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men’ (L.40). The poem seemingly shifts tone towards the end, and there are also hints at the equality between ‘mice and men’ with the poetic persona referring to the mouse as ‘an’ fellow mortal!’ and this idea is further explored in To a Louse in that – as a poet of the Romantic era – Burns attempts to discover a higher truth of meaning through the contemplation and analysis of the natural world. In this sense we may conclude that to Burns, industrialization and the dependence upon technology reduces humanity’s ability to find the truths about life and value of meaning.
What is interesting is that regardless of the interpretation that the poem To a Mouse somewhat goes about revealing man’s sense of superiority to the animal kingdom like that in the biblical book of Genesis, the idiomatic message of the poem on face value – to “take each day as it comes” and resist attempts to meticulously plan out our lives – is applied to both the farmer and the mouse. It must be noted for matters of contextual factors that – as David Perkins points out – ‘scientists and philosophers were narrowing the gap between humans and animals…Listening to young birds learn their songs, Locke concluded that they had perceptions and memories’ As the antithetical partner to To a Mouse, Burns’ poem To a Louse overtly offers more of an insight into the macrocosmic universe of the book of Genesis and humanity’s reduced preeminence to the animal kingdom as shown by Burns’ representation of the louse’s relationship with well-to-do young lady Jenny. Conversely to To a Mouse, this Burns poem is extremely overt in its satirical tone and style and this perhaps brings forward the idea that Burns means to make a sort of mockery at humanity’s superior opinion of itself when compared to the animal kingdom – particularly the gentry and middle classes. The fictitious louse in this poem fundamentally acts as a parasitical creature living in the bonnet of ‘sae fine a lady’ (L.10) and the poetic persona is for the majority of the poem largely distressed that this woman should be tainted with the louse as a infesting creature tarnishing all her finery. Of course the hyperbolic language to illustrate the persona’s exaggerated indignation is seen throughout with such incredulous outbursts as ‘but Miss’s fine Lunardi! Fye! / How daur ye do’t’ which acts as being somewhat comically ironic in the face of a message of equality between man and the natural world. The vulgar and diseased connotations of the parasitical louse contrasted with the prim and superior social stance of the woman further mocks humanity’s obsession with dignity as the leading species whilst also creating social commentary and criticizing the class conventions of eighteenth century Great Britain. When balancing and considering Burns’ two adjoining poems To a Mouse and To a Louse it seems equitable to argue that his poetry largely aims to display humanity in a more satirical manner. In hyperbolizing humanity’s consistent desire to maintain dignity and grow higher in rank Robert Burns shows that this ultimately puts them at odds with the natural world and this idea can be further bolstered by referring to the anthropomorphized God in his most human form. Through contextual details of urbanization in eighteenth century society, alongside God’s flawed error in creating facets of the universe that go against his will it may be conceded that it is largely humanity’s own internal nature to consistently compete with and outwit the natural world.
Burns, Robert, and Carol McGuirk. Robert Burns. London: Penguin Books, 1993. Print.
Greenstein, Edward L. “Presenting Genesis 1, Constructively And Deconstructively”. Prooftexts 21.1 (2001): 1-22. Web.
McGuirk, Carol. “Sentimental Encounter In Sterne, Mackenzie, And Burns”. Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 20.3 (1980): 505. Web.
Morris, David B. “Burns And Heteroglossia”. The Eighteenth Century 28.1 (1987): 3. Web.
Perkins, David. “Human Mouseness: Burns And Compassion For Animals”. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 42.1 (2000): 1-15. Print.
The Bible: Authorized King James Version,. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. Print.
Williams, Raymond. Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Print.