In what ways do the characters in “Home Burial” misunderstand each other?
To the wife, the husband’s act of burying the child was one of supreme indifference, while to him it must have been one of supreme suffering—an attempt to convince himself, through physical labor, that the death of a child is part of the natural order of things; or an act of self-punishment, a penance to be preformed befitting the horror of the loss; or simply a way of steeping himself in his grief, of forcing it into the muscles of his arms and back, of feeling it in the dirt on his clothes. The wife completely fails to grasp the meaning of her husband’s words: When he says, “ ‘Three foggy mornings and one rainy day / Will rot the best birch fence a man can build,’ ” she takes his words as literal, inappropriate comments on fence building; she is indisposed to see her husband’s form of grieving as acceptable. Yet his words have everything to do with the little body in the darkened parlor. He is talking about death, about the futility of man’s efforts, about fortune and misfortune, about the unfairness of fate and nature. And yet, how easy it would be for the man to explain himself to his wife when she accuses him of heartlessness. If he had any understanding of how to communicate to her, he would not leave everything unspoken. He would make some concession to her needs and articulate a brief defense. “You misunderstand,” he might say. “When I said that, it was because that was the only way I could say anything at all about our loss.” Instead, he lets her accusations float in the air, as if they were just hysteria and nonsense, and not worth gainsaying. This displays a lack of empathy and a failure of communication as fatal as the wife’s. When she describes his heartless act of grave digging, he says only, “I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed. / I’m cursed. God, if I don’t believe I’m cursed.” This leaves her free to believe that he accepts her accusation, that the curse refers to his hard-heartedness and not the terribly irony of her misinterpretation. He uses irony where she requires clarity. She needs him to admit to agony, and he can grant her no more than veiled references to a substratum of unspoken grief. And in the face of her grief’s obvious persistence, he makes a callous—or, at the very least, extremely counterproductive—remark: “I do think, though, you overdo it a little.”
Discuss the anticipation or remorse in “The Road Not Taken.”
There is a fair amount of irony to be found here, but this is also a poem infused with the anticipation of remorse. Its title is not “The Road Less Traveled” but “The Road Not Taken.” Even as he makes a choice (a choice he is forced to make if he does not want to stand forever in the woods, one for which he has no real guide or definitive basis for decision-making), the speaker knows that he will second-guess himself somewhere down the line—or at the very least he will wonder at what is irrevocably lost: the impossible, unknowable Other Path. But the nature of the decision is such that there is no Right Path—just the chosen path and the other path. The Road Less Traveled is a fiction the speaker will later invent, an attempt to polarize his past and give himself, retroactively, more agency than he really had. What are sighed for ages and ages hence are not so much the wrong decisions as the moments of decision themselves—moments that, one atop the other, mark the passing of a life. This is the more primal strain of remorse.
What is ironic about the speaker’s statements concerning his neighbor’s opinion of wall-building in “Mending Wall”?
The speaker may scorn his neighbor’s obstinate wall-building, may observe the activity with humorous detachment, but he himself goes to the wall at all times of the year to mend the damage done by hunters. And it is the speaker who contacts the neighbor at wall-mending time to set the annual appointment. Which person, then, is the true wall-builder? The speaker says he sees no need for a wall here, but this implies that there may be a need for a wall elsewhere— “where there are cows,” for example. Yet the speaker must derive something, some use, some satisfaction, out of the exercise of wall-building, or why would he initiate it here? There is something in him that does love a wall or at least the act of making a wall. One source of irony lies in an observation the poem makes indirectly: What seems an act of anti-social self-confinement (wall-building) can, in fact, be interpreted as an important social gesture. The ritual of wall maintenance highlights the dual and complementary nature of human society: The rights of the individual (property boundaries, proper boundaries) are affirmed through the affirmation of other individuals’ rights; it demonstrates another benefit of community, for this communal act, this civic “game,” offers a good excuse for the speaker to interact with his neighbor. One senses that the two men don’t spend much time together outside of this yearly chore. Wall-building can be seen, ironically, as highly social—both in the sense of “societal” and “sociable.” He are forced to ask ourselves whether the speaker might not, in fact, believe his neighbor’s proverb about good fences.