He saw her from the bottom of the stairs
Before she saw him. She was starting down,
Looking back over her shoulder at some fear.
These lines set up the basic scene of the poem, and for a poem called "Home Burial," it all seems nice enough to start.
First, there's a man at the bottom of the stairs, looking up at a woman who's starting to head down those stairs. Simple.
But she's not looking at the man—she's looking over her shoulder at something that scares her, and doesn't even know that the man's there.
The way the third line reads, we know it's not a horror poem, even though the woman is afraid and this poem has an eerie title. She's looking at a "fear," which makes it seem as though the horror here is in her head, and not some external scary monster.
Let's talk form for a second (or, if you want to talk form for a while longer, you can head over to our "Form and Meter" section). The first two lines have ten syllables each, which is often a good sign that we're probably working with iambic pentameter. Let's see if Frost keeps up this meter for the rest of the poem.
Also, lines 1 and 2 are examples of enjambment, because the thought from line 1 carries over onto line 2 without a pause. So if you were reading this poem aloud, you wouldn't stop to pause at the end of line 1, but instead move smoothly to line 2.
Though these lines may seem at first like an ordinary household scene, there's something underneath the surface. As this woman is walking down the stairs, something behind her is haunting her.
Plus, we have the strange dynamic of this man watching her without her knowledge. Will her behavior change when she realizes he's there?
She took a doubtful step and then undid it
To raise herself and look again. He spoke
Advancing toward her: "What is it you see
From up there always—for I want to know."
Whatever this woman is seeing over her shoulder, it's really tripping her up. In lines 4 and 5, she takes one step down the stairs, but it's a doubtful one, so she's not even sure that she should have taken it. Note the personification here, too. Normally, people are doubtful, not the steps they take.
Sure enough, as soon as she steps down, she undoes it, moving back up the stairs so she can look over her shoulder yet again. There's something she can see as she walks down these stairs that eats at her so much that she can't even walk down them normally.
The man who's watching her has noticed this disturbance, and asks her about it. As he's speaking, he walks up the stairs toward her. We guess she's been looking over her shoulder at this spot for a while, because he asks her what she "always" sees.
And he seems a little pushy when he says, "for I want to know." It seems as if the man views "for I want to know" as reason enough for her to answer him. It sure doesn't sound like he's taking her feelings into consideration here.
This is our first clue that the communication in this relationship isn't the best. Not only does the man have to directly ask the woman what's bothering her because she won't confide in him on her own, but his way of asking is a bit egotistical.
At this point, we're not sure what the relationship between these two people is, but the word "always" hints that they know each other pretty well, and probably live together.
And we get the feeling that domestic bliss doesn't really describe this scenario.
One more thing: Now that we've got seven lines under our belts, and we know that these lines are written in iambic pentameter, we should be looking for a rhyme scheme, too. Did you spot one?
No? That's because this poem is written in unrhymed iambic pentameter, a.k.a. blank verse, which just so happens to be a Frost favorite.
She turned and sank upon her skirts at that,
And her face changed from terrified to dull.
Two things happen when this guy finally interrupts this woman's strange stupor:
(1) She turns and sinks upon her skirts. We don't know about you, but Shmoop is visualizing her sitting down on the step, with her fancy 1914-style skirts billowing around her.
(2) The terrified expression she wore when she was looking at "some fear" changes to a dull one.
What do we make of these changes?
For one thing, it seems like this woman doesn't feel too comfy around this man. Maybe she's trying to hide her fear, or maybe the fact that she doesn't feel kindly toward this guy simply overpowers her fear.
We're guessing that, either way, she's not much of a fan of his pushy way of asking questions.
Let's keep reading to see if we guessed correctly.
He said to gain time: "What is it you see,"
Mounting until she cowered under him.
"I will find out now—you must tell me, dear."
In Line 10, "to gain time" while he walks up the stairs, or maybe to fill up the silence, the man in this poem repeats his question, and asks the woman again what she's looking at.
This lets us know that not only is this man pushy with his questions, but he's totally incapable of allowing awkward silences, even if it means he has to repeat himself.
Line 11 is a little scary. He walks up the stairs towards her, which makes her cower, or shrink back in fear. Even though she started at the top of the stairs, now she's shrinking underneath him. We get the sense that he's standing, while she's sitting, which makes for an interesting image. Could this say something about the power dynamics of their relationship?
After he has walked up to and intimidated her, he doesn't ask, but rather states, that he'll find out what she's been looking at. Basically, he's like, hon' you gotta tell me, because I'm gonna find out anyway.
In other words, he's acting even pushier than before. And even though he tacked a "dear" on the end of the statement to make his words sound affectionate, it doesn't seem all that sincere.
She, in her place, refused him any help
With the least stiffening of her neck and silence.
She let him look, sure that he wouldn't see,
Blind creature; and awhile he didn't see.
These lines show the woman's reaction to the man's pushiness. "In her place," or, in both her position on the stairs and in her turn, she slightly tenses her muscles and doesn't speak in order to show that she won't give in to his demand.
She won't help him. If he's going to figure out what she's looking at, he's going to have to do it himself. She lets him look where she had been gazing, confident that he wouldn't be able to see what she saw.
In line 16, the man is called a "blind creature." The narrator of the poem is telling us what the woman thinks about this man, using free indirect discourse. The word "blind" refers to the man's perception, not his eyesight. Sure, physically, he's perfectly capable of seeing what the woman is afraid of. But she doesn't think much of his mental or emotional abilities.
Line 16 ends by telling us that, for at least a little while, the woman was right. For a few moments, he doesn't get it. He's clearly slow on the uptake…of a lot of things.
But at last he murmured, "Oh," and again, "Oh."
"What is it—what?" she said.
"Just that I see."
"You don't," she challenged. "Tell me what it is."
Okay, so the woman wasn't totally right. Now the guy's gone and figured it all out.
The speaker of the poem is letting us follow the exact flow of this conversation, showing us how, at first, the man simply murmurs "Oh" twice. That's the moment of discovery.
The woman asks him what he thinks she sees. She seems unable to believe that he would actually be able to guess what's bothering her. She wants to make sure that he's actually on target before she gives him the satisfaction of knowing her fear.
He answers her with a kind of snarky tone, telling her only that he sees, and not what he sees. Is he holding on to a position of power here? Or is he doubting himself?
She still won't believe the man, and challenges him. She wants to know exactly what he thinks she sees. She really doesn't trust this guy to understand her emotions.
Or maybe she just doesn't want to share her feelings, and she's hoping he'll still be wrong. In any case, this structure leaves the readers in suspense. The woman, of course, knows what she fears, and the man finally does too. Now we're the odd ones out here.
Finally, let's take a second to talk about form again. We mentioned earlier that this poem is written in blank verse. But now the lines are starting to look a bit wonky. What's with all the indentations?
That's actually Frost trying to preserve the iambic pentameter of the lines. So, for example, line 18 isn't quite long enough, so line 19, with its indentation, swoops in for the rescue. For more on this, check out our "Form and Meter" section.