Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
"I shall laugh the worst laugh I ever laughed.
I'm cursed. God, if I don't believe I'm cursed."
- After listening to his wife speak for eighteen lines, the man has to get his two in. He chooses the route of cynical humor, saying that he will laugh the "worst" laugh he's ever laughed. He thinks the things she has said are laughable.
- "Worst" is not an adjective that we'd normally pair with laughing. Here, it shows that this chuckle is a nervous and cynical reaction, not a comic one. We're guessing he finds this in no way hilarious. We certainly don't.
- That suspicion is confirmed when he tells his wife he thinks he's cursed. And there's God again, entering his speech when he's frustrated and in disbelief.
- He seems to be thinking something along the lines of, "welp, no matter how hard I try, I can't get through to her."
"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 parlor.
- No matter what the man says, his wife is not done having her say. She plows right on through to the rest of her argument.
- She's so traumatized by the whole deal that she can remember every detail, including exactly what he said in the kitchen, which was some mundane comment about fences. Fences!
- She's so appalled by the timing of this talk that she says, "Think of it," and calls it "talk like that." There's even an exclamation point to show just how much she means it. Her tone is even more impressive because for the first part of the poem, she communicated mostly through gestures.
- And she does make a fair point. His talk about fences and rotting birches has nothing to do with their dead child. She refers to their son's body using a euphemism, calling his corpse "what was in the darkened parlor," rather than talking about it directly.
- There is one thing that connects rotting birch trees to the dead child in the parlor, but it's a little grizzly: the birch fence, like the child, is an example of a living thing that is no longer living, and now subject to decay. Yep, we went there.
- But to be fair, maybe talking about everyday things was just his way of coping with the pain. Maybe he was trying to distract himself from the tragedy. What do you think—should his wife cut him some slack?
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.
- In line 101, the woman comes to a conclusion that we readers may or may not agree with—that her husband couldn't possibly care about their dead kid.
- This seems like a pretty wild accusation to make, but after we've heard him tell his wife that the memory of her dead child should be satisfied by now, we can see where she's coming from.
- But then she expands her criticism to just about everyone—not just her husband.
- She says some pretty depressing things in the next few lines, so you may want to have some chocolate (or friends) at hand to cheer you up.
- In saying that the nearest that one's friends can go to another's death is not even worth the try, she's basically declaring that friends can't go anywhere close to death. In fact, she says, from the time a person becomes terminally ill, they are alone, and die even more alone. Don't say we didn't warn you about the big bummer these lines pack.
- She means "alone" in the sense of friendless, without anyone who really understands. It is very possible to be alone in this way even if you are in a room full of people. We get the sense from this poem that these two people are very alone, even though they're living together and are right there in the same room.
- There are a couple of ways to take these lines. One is that the woman is upset because she feels sick to death with grief, and her husband (who is likely even more than a friend) can't follow her.
- Another is that she's feeling particularly bummed because she couldn't go with her child to death—she tried to follow, but came up short.
- Either way, it's not exactly warm and fuzzy. This woman has a long way to slog through the five stages of grief.
Friends make pretense 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!"
- Even after delivering the whammy of a line "One is alone, and one dies more alone," the woman continues to push her point about friends not being able to go near to death with a dying person, no matter how dear to them that person is.
- The woman says that friends may pretend, to follow a dying person to the grave, but they never really can. Soon enough, they slink back to the real world of the living.
- According to her perspective, before a person dies, his or her friends have already, at least in their minds, turned on their heels, back to the world of life. Friends can understand the world of the living, unlike the mysterious world of the dead.
- So what does this all mean? That the world's evil, apparently. Well, that's one way of looking at it, lady.
- On the same line that she claims the world is evil, she states that she "won't have grief so." This thought is continued in the next line, which is an example of enjambment (when a thought is split between two lines). The woman then qualifies her statement by saying that if she can change it she won't have grief so. In other words, if she could change grief to be a little different, a little less evil, she just might.
- She feels so strongly, and is so overtaken by her despair, that she loses some control, resorting to saying "Oh," and repeating the words "I won't" to get her point across. This reminds us of when she said "don't" four times in a row in line 32. Once again, these are not the words of a happy person.
- Note the repetition of the long, lonely "o" sounds in this line. That assonance makes the line seem even more lonely and sad.
- While she's talking generally here, these lines totally shed some light on what has made her so mad at her husband. Basically, he's doing what these friends are doing—pretending to follow the dead person to the grave, but really turning back to the world of the living and falling short of that promise. Maybe that's what bothered her so much about the fact that he could talk about fences when he should be mourning the death of his son.