The Dirt on “Home Burial:” Biographical Criticism and the Poetry of Robert Frost

I’ll define biographical criticism as a critical approach that uses the events of an author’s life to explain meaning in the author’s work. Examples are ubiquitous and familiar: Samuel Clemens piloted a riverboat in the Antebellum Era, John Steinbeck researched migrant workers and families in California before publishing Grapes of Wrath, and Joseph Conrad captained a steamboat in the Congo. Chaucer’s grandmother, according to my AP English teacher, served as his inspiration for the Wife of Bath. Even as early as my 7th grade English class, I learned that Shakespeare had a son named Hamnet who died around the time the Bard wrote Hamlet.

According to Benson, a biographical approach considers a work’s first-order context – the author’s life – and recognizes literary study as being an art not a science (110). He places it at odds with New Criticism, so a work takes on a different meaning when viewed through the lens of an author’s life.

Let’s attempt a biographical critique of Frost’s “Home Burial.” We read it in class and know already that Frost and his wife Elinor, just like the poem’s couple, lost their first-born son soon after his birth. Because the poem is long, I suggest a new tab for this link to follow along at home.

Imagine the author of "Stopping by Woods..." threatening his sister from this porch

Frost’s poems are often in first person, so it seems ironic that this poem is written not only in dialogue but also in third-person. A way of pushing away a poem that Frost called “sad” and never read aloud in public (Thompson 598)? Perhaps, but Thompson gives several more details about the poem’s background. Frost admitted the emotional parallels between him and his wife after their child’s death and Amy’s and her husband’s after theirs. Amy’s declamation that “the world’s evil” in Line 110 is a verbatim quote from Elinor Frost following her own child’s death.

The true subject of the poem – from a biographical perspective – is the death of Frost’s nephew, child of his sister-in-law Leona White Harvey, in 1895. It was her relationship with her husband that inspired the poem. Thompson implies yet another connection to Frost’s life, this time to his childhood in San Francisco. In the index under “Home Burial,” he lists page 10. While no reference to the poem exists on that page, it does describe how Frost’s mother would at times leave the house when his and flee to a neighbor’s when his father was drunk. If I may posit my own connection, a fight with his sister Jeannie (Thompson 340) in which he used a loaded pistol to force her back into the house may have inspired the force alluded to at the poem’s closing. Also, the poem was written in England at a time when Frost was homesick.

Those life events are the personal context for “Home Burial.” Rather than adding meaning to the poem, whose text remains unchanged, these revelations about Frost’s life and the poem’s possible inspirations change the interpretation of Frost’s life. Biographical criticism may explain the personal context of the poem, but it does not explain the poem’s meaning, its significance.

Rather, as we discussed today in class, it limits the interpretations. Because we know Frost’s and Harvey’s firstborn children died, we assume also that Amy and her husband lost their firstborn. No mention is made of other children, but they might be there (lack of evidence is not evidence of absence). The attendant implications for Amy and her husband’s relationship are enormous; “Newlyweds” weathering a crisis from their first child’s death is more tragic and dangerous than parents struggling with the death of their third.

I argue biographical criticism casts the choices inherent in writing as clues to the author’s personality – not the poem’s meaning. In this way, Frost’s oeuvre is the leading witness in finding meaning in Frost. We can see him taking different strategies when dealing with an emotional Elinor, progressing from belittling, to consolation, to denunciation, to confrontation. In this way biographical criticism creates an interpretation of the author, as Foucault suggests, and can reveal much about the times and culture of when the work was written.



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13 thoughts on “The Dirt on “Home Burial:” Biographical Criticism and the Poetry of Robert Frost

  1. Ben, one of the most poignant statements that you made in your post, which I feel is sometimes ignored in literature, is the fact that the absence of evidence is not evidence of an absence. There are many things that are true but are not stated in works about literary figures, which are not taken into account when biographical criticism is being made. Also, on a side note it was a great post and I learned a lot.

  2. I definitely agree with you when your statement, “[b]iographical criticism may explain the personal context of the poem, but it does not explain the poem’s meaning, its significance” and I find that once we learn biographical information about an author it can simplify and limit our interpretation. Drawing a conclusion solely based on the text can be difficult once biographical information is learned. Even with a deliberate effort to ignore the author’s life the reader’s interpretation is still influenced on some level. Once this biographical information is learned we, as responsible readers, must make a stronger effort to disregard this information in our interpretation of the text. We must also recognize the effect this association has on the purity of our interpretation and the limitations that are present.

  3. I really liked your explication of how little biographical criticism can explain a poem’s meaning. It seems that readers often place too much emphasis on an author’s biography, seeking to explain a literary work in terms of facts of an author’s personal world, and in doing so, eliminating the essential element of creativity. It was also very helpful how you related this idea back to Foucault’s idea of the author function; biographical criticism can give us an important sense of the social and historical context during the time of publishing.

  4. I like how that, instead of just mechanically feeding us the dictionary definition of biographical criticism, you took the time to apply it and create a working example. It was an extra step that really helps strengthen your point.

    Your analysis of the poem is solid, but what I enjoy best about the passage is how you bring up the biggest flaw in biographical criticism: Limiting. While it does help us illuminate the life of a man, it drains a bit of the vibrancy from a poem that should be perceived and interpreted without the influence, as the new critic believes, of limitations such as biographical information.

  5. Ben,
    I really enjoyed as well as benefited from reading your post. I thought it was very informative and insightful. Similar to James’ response, I also agree with your statement: “Biographical criticism may explain the personal context of the poem, but it does not explain the poem’s meaning, its significance.” In my opinion, this statement raises an extremely valid and integral point in regards to how we read and understand poetry. I agree with Ann and her argument which states that readers place far too much importance on the biography of an author which takes away from the creativity as well as meaning of the poem on its own. Great post Ben!

  6. Like everyone else here (who seems to have beaten me to it), I too really liked your analysis of the definite cons of using the biographical approach as a valid critical approach to literature. It seems that you’re not the biggest fan of this method, since you don’t find that it adds any significant/relevant meaning to the poem or the text itself. But I have a secret love of playing the devil’s advocate, and since I happen to be a bit of a fan of the argument that “Context is Content”, one phrase of your post in particular doesn’t sit well with me. I understand how you got to the notion that biographical criticism sits in stark contrast to New Criticism, since one advocates bringing in external evidence while the other blatantly rejects it. But must a work really take on a “different” meaning when viewed through the lens of an author’s life (taken from your second paragraph)? I may have an unfair advantage by replying to this post later in the course, after we’ve had the opportunity to apply biographical criticism to Mrs. Dalloway. But I wouldn’t say that my interpretation of that novel was vastly “different” after knowing a bit of Virginia Woolf’s story. It makes my understanding more complex and muddled, yes, but I don’t know that I’d say it completely changed all of my judgments on what the work was supposed to portray. I’ve never thought of the biographical approach as constraining before. I’m not sure I quite follow how having more bits of information to add to my greater understanding can be a hindrance. With all of that said, however, I really do like your final paragraph, especially the idea that biographical criticism helps to form our opinion of the author’s personality and NOT of the text itself (so maybe I’m misinterpreting your second paragraph?). I’m sure I’ve made this more confusing than it needed to be, but really, great stuff!

  7. Ben,
    Your post definitely made me analyze my own views on biographical criticism and continue thinking about our class discussion about it. What I found most interesting was your look into Frost’s life and “Home Burial,” past the obvious connection to the death of one of his children, and onto a mention of his nephew who died at a very young age, his mother and father’s relationship, and a fight with Jeannie. This shows a good depth of analysis and research. I also like how you end with the statement about biographical criticism being more accurate when examining the time and culture of a poem, rather than the author him/herself…it is a realistic and logical way to end the post.

  8. Ben, thanks for being brave enough to take your analysis of “Home Burial” past the functions of biographical criticism and into its limitations: your doing so was helpful to me in processing Foucault’s words on author significance. I was surprised, actually, that you did not mention Foucault until the end of your post. You seem to really agree with him on the effects of author on text, and text on author, in that a knowledge of the author and all of the associations/implications of his name actually limit, and not enhance, meaning. And while I now fully understand this idea, I am forced to wonder– why is it that we are so prone to fascination with biographies? Why is it so exciting to know that Frost was once in love, once held a gun in front of his sister? I feel that all of this information makes a poem feel more “real” to us, and an author that much more “alive.” Is such a response inherently dangerous? Is Foucault turning in his grave? Aye, perhaps.

  9. I read this again after writing my manifesto about how I prefer New Criticism and it was interesting to me how you have brought up valid points about the necessity of biographical criticism and how I just convinced myself to focus only on text, while before the author’s background was definitely an influence on how I viewed literature. At the end, I think they are both valid and interesting ways to study literature as they both might bring you to different or alike interpretations of a text.

  10. I do agree with Ben and how biographical criticism allows for critics to draw parallels from the author life to his works as seen above through the critique of “Home Burial.” However, while it allows for us to glimpse into the historical background of the poem and allusions to historical, economical and social events during the time of publication the symbolic meaning is construed. There is a thin line between biographical criticism and authorial intent. Having such a deep reading into this poem based solely on Frosts personal life constricts the reading of the poem. The author is not the sole theme of the poem.
    When using biographical criticism one must not define the poem by events but should take elements from both the authors life and the text. For example, while Frost and his wife had lost a child, it does not mean that the characters are frost and his wife. They are instead a representation of the feelings and emotions that could have been from the death of his child. No matter how much an author tries to be objective in his writing or tries to remove himself from his characters or plot there will always be the writer in the work as the work itself is created by the authors personal experiences.

  11. Could you tell me who you are referencing as far as who is Thompson? I am doing research and would like to read it in it’s entirety.

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