Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Death of the Hired Man

Mary sat musing on the lamp-flame at the table
Waiting for Warren. When she heard his step,
She ran on tip-toe down the darkened passage
To meet him in the doorway with the news
And put him on his guard. ‘Silas is back.’
She pushed him outward with her through the door
And shut it after her. ‘Be kind,’ she said.
She took the market things from Warren’s arms
And set them on the porch, then drew him down
To sit beside her on the wooden steps.

‘When was I ever anything but kind to him?
But I’ll not have the fellow back,’ he said.
‘I told him so last haying, didn’t I?
If he left then, I said, that ended it.
What good is he? Who else will harbor him
At his age for the little he can do?
What help he is there’s no depending on.
Off he goes always when I need him most.
He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.
“All right,” I say, “I can’t afford to pay
Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.”
“Someone else can.” “Then someone else will have to.”
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s someone at him
Trying to coax him off with pocket-money,—
In haying time, when any help is scarce.
In winter he comes back to us. I’m done.’

‘Sh! not so loud: he’ll hear you,’ Mary said.

‘I want him to: he’ll have to soon or late.’

‘He’s worn out. He’s asleep beside the stove.
When I came up from Rowe’s I found him here,
Huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,
A miserable sight, and frightening, too—
You needn’t smile—I didn’t recognize him—
I wasn’t looking for him—and he’s changed.
Wait till you see.’

                          ‘Where did you say he’d been?’

‘He didn’t say. I dragged him to the house,
And gave him tea and tried to make him smoke.
I tried to make him talk about his travels.
Nothing would do: he just kept nodding off.’

‘What did he say? Did he say anything?’

‘But little.’

                ‘Anything? Mary, confess
He said he’d come to ditch the meadow for me.’


              ‘But did he? I just want to know.’

‘Of course he did. What would you have him say?
Surely you wouldn’t grudge the poor old man
Some humble way to save his self-respect.
He added, if you really care to know,
He meant to clear the upper pasture, too.
That sounds like something you have heard before?
Warren, I wish you could have heard the way
He jumbled everything. I stopped to look
Two or three times—he made me feel so queer—
To see if he was talking in his sleep.
He ran on Harold Wilson—you remember—
The boy you had in haying four years since.
He’s finished school, and teaching in his college.
Silas declares you’ll have to get him back.
He says they two will make a team for work:
Between them they will lay this farm as smooth!
The way he mixed that in with other things.
He thinks young Wilson a likely lad, though daft
On education—you know how they fought
All through July under the blazing sun,
Silas up on the cart to build the load,
Harold along beside to pitch it on.’

‘Yes, I took care to keep well out of earshot.’

‘Well, those days trouble Silas like a dream.
You wouldn’t think they would. How some things linger!
Harold’s young college boy’s assurance piqued him.
After so many years he still keeps finding
Good arguments he sees he might have used.
I sympathize. I know just how it feels
To think of the right thing to say too late.
Harold’s associated in his mind with Latin.
He asked me what I thought of Harold’s saying
He studied Latin like the violin
Because he liked it—that an argument!
He said he couldn’t make the boy believe
He could find water with a hazel prong—
Which showed how much good school had ever done him.
He wanted to go over that. But most of all
He thinks if he could have another chance
To teach him how to build a load of hay—’

‘I know, that’s Silas’ one accomplishment.
He bundles every forkful in its place,
And tags and numbers it for future reference,
So he can find and easily dislodge it
In the unloading. Silas does that well.
He takes it out in bunches like big birds’ nests.
You never see him standing on the hay
He’s trying to lift, straining to lift himself.’

‘He thinks if he could teach him that, he’d be
Some good perhaps to someone in the world.
He hates to see a boy the fool of books.
Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride,
And nothing to look forward to with hope,
So now and never any different.’

Part of a moon was falling down the west,
Dragging the whole sky with it to the hills.
Its light poured softly in her lap. She saw it
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings,
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard some tenderness
That wrought on him beside her in the night.
‘Warren,’ she said, ‘he has come home to die:
You needn’t be afraid he’ll leave you this time.’

‘Home,’ he mocked gently.

                                       ‘Yes, what else but home?
It all depends on what you mean by home.
Of course he’s nothing to us, any more
Than was the hound that came a stranger to us
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.’

‘Home is the place where, when you have to go there,
They have to take you in.’

                                      ‘I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.’

Warren leaned out and took a step or two,
Picked up a little stick, and brought it back
And broke it in his hand and tossed it by.
‘Silas has better claim on us you think
Than on his brother? Thirteen little miles
As the road winds would bring him to his door.
Silas has walked that far no doubt today.
Why didn’t he go there? His brother’s rich,
A somebody—director in the bank.’

‘He never told us that.’

                                  ‘We know it though.’

‘I think his brother ought to help, of course.
I’ll see to that if there is need. He ought of right
To take him in, and might be willing to—
He may be better than appearances.
But have some pity on Silas. Do you think
If he’d had any pride in claiming kin
Or anything he looked for from his brother,
He’d keep so still about him all this time?’

‘I wonder what’s between them.’

                                                ‘I can tell you.
Silas is what he is—we wouldn’t mind him—
But just the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide.
He never did a thing so very bad.
He don’t know why he isn’t quite as good
As anyone. Worthless though he is,
He won’t be made ashamed to please his brother.’

I can’t think Si ever hurt anyone.’

‘No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged chair-back.
He wouldn’t let me put him on the lounge.
You must go in and see what you can do.
I made the bed up for him there tonight.
You’ll be surprised at him—how much he’s broken.
His working days are done; I'm sure of it.’

‘I’d not be in a hurry to say that.’

‘I haven’t been. Go, look, see for yourself.
But, Warren, please remember how it is:
He’s come to help you ditch the meadow.
He has a plan. You mustn’t laugh at him.
He may not speak of it, and then he may.
I’ll sit and see if that small sailing cloud
Will hit or miss the moon.’

                                      It hit the moon.
Then there were three there, making a dim row,
The moon, the little silver cloud, and she.

Warren returned—too soon, it seemed to her,
Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.

‘Warren,’ she questioned.

                                     ‘Dead,’ was all he answered.

~ Robert Frost (1874-1963)


  1. One of the most poignant and the saddest poems ever written, IMO.

    But realistic. Sometimes family won't take you in, especially if our lives haven't lived up to "family standards." Family is not always the place you can go when nobody else will take you in. Particularly is the last part of the 20th Century and today.

    A person can work hard his whole life long, can work the best that he can -- right up to the moment of death and die alone in a corner in a place where "strangers" live. Indeed, all of us ultimately die alone even if family is gathered round us.

    Take a look around and have some pity on Silas. Don't we all know a Silas to whom we should show kindness?

    Could Robert Frost have been thinking of the passage below when he wrote this poem?

    35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:

    36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.

    37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?

    38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?

    39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?

    40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.
    -- Matthew 25:35-40

  2. "My" Warren is not at all like the Warren in Frost's poem. See A Christmas Visitor.

    Such is the Christian heart expressed in overt deeds!

    Such is the heart of a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ!

  3. Who do you think is the "star" of this particular "show?"

    Would it be Warren?

    His wife Mary?

    Or Old Silas?

    For whom do you feel the most pity?

    The most admiration?

    The most contempt?

    According to the poet's implications what do you think might be the best definition of "home?"

    Do you find the piece uplifting? -- depressing? -- or merely a starkly realistic "slice of life?"

    Does Frost give any hints as to which of these characters he finds most appealing? What makes you think so?

    Do you see Frost as involved with or detached from his characters.

    What in your opinion makes this memorably beautiful piece of work?

  4. Economic utility is a poor measure of either a life or a man, but it is a reality that shapes all present and/or future possibilities.

  5. FT,
    Excellent questions all!

    Alas, I'm too tired right now to tackle answering the questions. I must take a nap first! The last two days here have been busy, busy, busy. I'm exhausted! But it's a good kind of exhaustion.

  6. Sooner or later all people -- rich and poor alike -- must cope with adversity, Thersites. The measure of us all is how graciously and considerately we manage to bear our griefs.

  7. Indeed. But we don't HAVE to bear them alone. We are at our best when we can overcome the "realities" of economic utility through mutual cooperation and support. We don't have to face them alone.

    Volunteer organizations like "Decorate a Vet" and the kindness of Mary and Warren are what really make this country great.

    Never give up the dream, America!

    Volunteer. Give a hand up, never a hand-out. It's time to "Level Up"! ;)

  8. Who do you think is the "star" of this particular "show?"

    Would it be Warren?

    His wife Mary?

    Or Old Silas?

    Silas is the "star," but Mary is the hero(ine) because her soul is tender. As a woman, she can afford to be tender whereas Warren has to be the responsible one in the family (that is, the provider). Mary lives in the present, but Warren looks to the future.

    For whom do you feel the most pity?

    Silas. His situation is that he has to die in the home of strangers instead of having a loving family to ease his crossing of the river. On the other hand, Silas made his own choices of lifestyle such that he could for his economic class. Silas, of course, could well represent any of us if our situations warranted being forced into the position that Silas finds himself.

    The most admiration?


    The most contempt?

    I don't find any of the characters contemptible. The reality of life is what it is, and each of us to do the best that we know to do at the time.

    According to the poet's implications what do you think might be the best definition of "home?"

    The place that we spend our labors on. Our lives are our labors, and those labors live on after us.

    Do you find the piece uplifting? -- depressing? -- or merely a starkly realistic "slice of life?"

    The piece is stark realism. Life is stark realism!

    Does Frost give any hints as to which of these characters he finds most appealing? What makes you think so?

    Probably Silas because Frost seems to admire Silas's work ethic: He thinks he ought to earn a little pay,
    Enough at least to buy tobacco with,
    So he won’t have to beg and be beholden.
    “All right,” I say, “I can’t afford to pay
    Any fixed wages, though I wish I could.”
    “Someone else can.” “Then someone else will have to.”

    Self-sufficiency makes like worthwhile -- even if how one spends his self-sufficiency isn't something that others approve of.

    Do you see Frost as involved with or detached from his characters.

    Involved with. All characters are archetypes of different aspects of humanity.

    What in your opinion makes this memorably beautiful piece of work?

    The simplicity of the language used. Basically, Frost is telling the story as if he were an invisible witness right on the scene.

    Furthermore, Frost doesn't pass judgment on any of the characters. I think that Frost regards each of the people in the poem as having worth in each individual's own way. He does hint, however, that kindness is one of the noblest of human qualities.

    Another factor that makes this a powerful piece is the portrayal of the inevitable for us all; that inevitability is our own responsibility and should be met without making anyone else feel guilty. We are accountable for ourselves and can make nobody else accountable.

  9. Thank you for astute carefully thought out analysis.

    These are the sorts of responses and level of discussion one always hopes for, and very rarely gets to experience.

  10. Frost, who was a notably crusty, rather difficult character in real life, gives an entirely different slant on the problem of aging in poverty and dealing with The Inevitable in this wry piece -- one of my personal favorites.

    __________ Provide, Provide __________
    The witch that came (the withered hag)
    To wash the steps with pail and rag,
    Was once the beauty Abishag,

    The picture pride of Hollywood.
    Too many fall from great and good
    For you to doubt the likelihood.

    Die early and avoid the fate.
    Or if predestined to die late,
    Make up your mind to die in state.

    Make the whole stock exchange your own!
    If need be occupy a throne,
    Where nobody can call you crone.

    Some have relied on what they knew;
    Others on simply being true.
    What worked for them might work for you.

    No memory of having starred
    Atones for later disregard,
    Or keeps the end from being hard.

    Better to go down dignified
    With boughten friendship at your side
    Than none at all. Provide, provide!

    ~ Robert Frost (1874-1963)

    I wonder if any if our liberal friends and antagonists would appreciate the tongue-in-cheek humor there, or see only the elements of callousness and cruelty? Life being the confounding, paradoxical thing it is, I see both.

    The Truth never flatters, rarely comforts, but always heals and set us free from the weakening effects of our foolish fancies.

    By all means do whatever you can -- and whatever you must -- to avoid the fate of Abishag -- or poor Silas.



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