The Death of the Hired Man
The Death of the Hired Man
Robert Frost 1914
First published in Robert Frost’s collection North of Boston in 1914, “The Death of the Hired Man” is a moderately long, dramatic dialogue that occurs between a farmer, Warren, and his wife, Mary. The “hired man” of the title is Silas, who wants to work for Warren during the winter but is unreliable during other seasons when farm work is more plentiful. Warren has grown impatient with Silas, but Mary urges him to “be kind,” since she believes Silas has returned to die. This debate between Mary and Warren represents the ambivalence often felt between two conflicting desires, here the desire to be charitable toward others and the desire not to be taken advantage of. For whatever reason, Silas is unable to ask his own family for assistance. Eventually, Warren agrees to speak with Silas, but he returns to Mary quickly, informing her that Silas is dead. Like many of Frost’s poems, “The Death of the Hired Man” occurs in a rural setting, and the characters’ concerns are those of people who live in a rural environment. Unlike many of Frost’s other more well-known poems, however, this one does not conclude with a sudden insight on the part of the speaker; rather, because the poem is not a lyric but a narrative that tells a story, the interest here lies in the drama of the situation. Through the presence of substantial dialogue, this poem easily illustrates Frost’s theory that poetry can be most effective when it relies on ordinary language.
Born in San Francisco, Frost was eleven years old when his father died, and his family relocated to Lawrence, Massachusetts, where his paternal grandparents lived. In 1892, Frost graduated from Lawrence High School and shared valedictorian honors with Elinor White, whom he married three years later. After graduation, Frost briefly attended Dartmouth College, taught at grammar schools, worked at a mill, and served as a newspaper reporter. He published a chapbook of poems at his own expense and contributed the poem “The Birds Do Thus” to the Independent, a New York magazine. In 1897 Frost entered Harvard University as a special student, but left before completing degree requirements because of a bout with tuberculosis and the birth of his second child. Three years later the Frosts’ eldest child died, an event which led to marital discord and which, some critics believe, Frost later addressed in his poem “Home Burial.”
In 1912, having been unable to interest American publishers in his poems, Frost moved his family to a farm in Buckinghamshire, England, where he wrote prolifically, attempting to perfect his distinct poetic voice. During this time, he met such literary figures as Ezra Pound, an American expatriate poet and champion of innovative literary approaches, and Edward Thomas, a young English poet associated with the Georgian poetry movement then popular in Great Britain. Frost soon published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913), which received appreciative reviews. Following the success of the book, Frost relocated to Gloucestershire, England, and directed publication of a second collection, North of Boston (1914). This volume contains several of his most frequently anthologized pieces, including “Mending Wall,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and “After Apple-Picking.” Shortly after North of Boston was published in Great Britain, the Frost family returned to the United States, settling in Franconia, New Hampshire. The American editions of Frost’s first two volumes won critical acclaim upon publication in the United States, and in 1917 Frost began his affiliations with several American universities as a professor of literature and poet-in-residence. Frost continued to write prolifically over the years and received numerous literary awards as well as honors from the United States government and American universities. He recited his work at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy in 1961 and represented the United States on several official missions. Though he received great popular acclaim, his critical reputation waned during the latter part of his career. His final three collections received less enthusiastic reviews, yet contain several pieces acknowledged as among his greatest achievements. He died in Boston in 1963.
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.” 5
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. 10
“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 15
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, 20
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.’
‘Some one else can.’ ‘Then some one else will
I shouldn’t mind his bettering himself 25
If that was what it was. You can be certain,
When he begins like that, there’s some one 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.” 30
“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, 35
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?” 40
“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?” 45
“Anything? Mary, confess
He said he’d come to ditch the meadow for me.”
“But did he? I just want to know.” 50
“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. 55
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. 60
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. 65
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, 70
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 75
Harold’s young college boy’s assurance piqued
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. 80
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 85
He could find water with a hazel prong—
Which showed how much good school had ever
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—” 90
“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. 95
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 some one in the world. 100
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.” 105
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
And spread her apron to it. She put out her hand
Among the harp-like morning-glory strings, 110
Taut with the dew from garden bed to eaves,
As if she played unheard the 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.” 115
“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 120
Out of the woods, worn out upon the trail.”
“Home is the place where, when you have to go
They have to take you in.”
“I should have called it
Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” 125
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 130
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.” 135
“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. 140
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.” 145
“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 150
As any one. He won’t be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is.”
“I can’t think Si ever hurt any one.”
“No, but he hurt my heart the way he lay
And rolled his old head on that sharp-edged 155
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
His working days are done; I’m sure of it.” 160
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. 165
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, 170
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. 175
This opening stanza functions as an introduction to the situation, presenting the attitudes of the two main characters as well as broaching the major conflict. We are told that “Silas is back,” though we don’t yet know who Silas is, and we gather that Warren will be upset with this information, though Mary is more patient. The rhythm of the opening line is unusual compared to most lines in the poem because the accent or stress occurs on the first syllable of the first metrical foot, because “lamp-flame” is a spondee with both syllables stressed, and because the line contains thirteen syllables rather than the usual ten. Frost is also able to vary the rhythm of this stanza by including two short emphatic sentences among the longer ones: “Silas is back” and “Be kind, she said.” Note also the alliteration, or repetition of initial consonant sounds, in “Mary sat musing” and “Waiting for Warren. When.”
In this section, Warren presents his interpretation of the past events, referring in a flashback to his experience with Silas. He distinguishes between being kind to Silas and hiring him to work on the farm. Apparently, Silas has left and returned repeatedly, until last haying season when Warren ordered him not to return if he was going to leave. One indication that this act has occurred repeatedly is Warren’s use of present tense verbs; if this had happened only once, Warren would have said that Silas “came back” rather than that he “comes back.” “Haying season” would be the time when all of the farmers in the area would need extra help. Some of them would be willing to pay wages rather than simply room and board or a portion of the crop, but Warren is apparently not financially able to do so. Warren indicates that Silas does not use the cash to “better himself” but perhaps wastes it.
In this section, the differences between the attitudes of Warren and Mary become clear. Warren is frustrated because of his past experience while Mary is compassionate because she has observed Silas’s current condition. She describes him with words that could describe an animal rather than a human being: “huddled,” “miserable,” “frightening.” And he’d placed himself “against the barn door” rather than the door to the house. Although Mary attempted to care for him physically, Silas seemed to be too exhausted to receive her care. The fact that he was unable to wake up to drink tea or smoke foreshadows the end of the poem, when he will be permanently unable to wake up. The break between lines 39 and 40 indicates that the speaker is changing from Mary to Warren, but that Mary’s line needs to be filled out metrically with Warren’s—together the lines consist of ten syllables.
At the beginning of this section, Warren’s tone is sarcastic. He speculates that Silas has “come to ditch the meadow” as he’s promised to do in the past, but Warren knows Silas is incapable of the task. Even after Mary provides more detail about her conversation with Silas, Warren remains unsympathetic. Mary, though, recognizes that Silas makes promises he can’t keep to protect his dignity; he promises to work because he doesn’t want to beg. Yet Mary also recognizes how ill Silas is through his conversation; he’s nearly incoherent. In this section, Frost continues to use colloquial idioms rather than formal vocabulary to emphasize the oral nature of the poem: Silas “ran on Harold Wilson” and describes him as a “likely lad.”
This section begins with a simile: Silas’s past troubles him “like a dream”; his memory is like a nightmare. This simile is particularly appropriate because of Silas’s inability to stay awake during his conversation with Mary and because by the end of the poem he will drift from sleep to death. The younger boy is represented by Latin and a violin, much more cultural and formal types of knowledge than Silas’s folk knowledge, how to “find water with a hazel prong.” The conflict between Silas and Harold Wilson also relates to Silas’s dignity and feelings of self-worth. His solution is to teach Harold “how to build a load of hay,” knowledge Harold probably won’t use but knowledge that gives value to Silas’s life.
In these two stanzas, the argument continues between Warren and Mary. Warren relies on a simile to explain Silas’s inept methods: he forks hay “in bunches like big birds’ nests.” This type of simile would be natural to Warren, who lives in the country and would have observed such birds’ nests. Mary seems to share Silas’s attitude that formal education is somewhat useless, for she refers to Harold as a “fool of books.” She believes that if Silas can transmit his knowledge to someone else, he will not believe he has lived in vain.
In this section, the tone shifts substantially, becoming much more lyrical. For the first time, attention shifts away from the characters to the setting. The description becomes somewhat peaceful, as the moon is personified, that is, given the characteristics of a living being. Mary—not Warren—receives
- A 1958 interview with the poet is available on video cassette from Zenger.
- Mystic Fire Video released a videocassette titled Robert Frost as volume 3 of their “Voices and Visions” series.
- You can see interviews with the poet as well as hear him reading on the video Robert Frost, which is part of the “Poetry America Series” released by AIMS Media.
- An audio cassette titled “Robert Frost Reads the Poems of Robert Frost” is available from Decca press.
the quiet light and seems to be more aware of the beauty of their surroundings. She notices that the stems of the morning glories resemble the strings of a harp, a simile that is extended when Mary touches them “As if she played unheard.” Frost is using these details in order to emphasize Mary’s character; as a gentle person, she interprets her surroundings with gentleness.
The dialogue in this section reveals the crux of Mary’s disagreement with Warren. They debate the meaning of “home” with Warren providing a cynical and calloused definition: “when you have to go there, / they have to take you in.” His attitude is exceptionally practical, while Mary’s is more emotional.
At the beginning of this section, Warren’s action reinforces the difference between him and Mary. While Mary had earlier treated the plants gently, Warren breaks a stick and tosses it aside. Their conversation here provides some additional background material regarding Silas. He has a brother who is quite successful by conventional standards but with whom Silas does not get along. Warren and Mary know this as people in small towns tend to know about each other’s lives, not because Silas has himself revealed anything. Warren understands relationships as if they are contracts—Silas should go to his brother because he has a “better claim” on a blood relative. Mary agrees that his brother has an obligation, but she argues that Silas’s dignity has greater value.
Here Mary continues to urge Warren to treat Silas with sympathy. She speculates that he’s too weak to recover enough to do any work, though she does not want to make Silas feel useless. She concludes her statement with a whimsical statement that she’ll watch a cloud sail past or hit the moon. These lines recall the earlier reference to the moon, when Mary noticed and captured the light in her apron.
In this section, the abrupt nature of Silas’s death is conveyed by the structure of the lines. The cloud “hit the moon,” and the tone shifts briefly from whimsy to aggression. At this point, the natural elements of the moon and cloud become characters with a status equal to Mary’s. When Warren returns, his attitude is somewhat more compassionate; he responds gently to Mary even if he could not have to Silas. Then he needs only one word, “Dead,” to convey the event. Although he seems very matter-of-fact, he does not add any of the sarcastic comments that characterized his speech earlier. One interpretation of this direct statement, “Dead, was all he answered,” is that at the end of human life, no interpretation is necessary or possible. Because of this abrupt ending, the poem acquires a much darker significance—Warren is given the last word, and Silas’s life seems to have been without meaning.
Duty and Responsibility
“The Death of the Hired Man” uses an extended dialogue between Mary and Warren to explore questions of duty and responsibility. The poem opens with Mary “musing on the lamp-flame at the table / Waiting for Warren.” She does not seem to have anything else to do but to wait for her husband and stare at candle; or alternatively, she has forsaken her other duties to wait for him. This opening image prompts questions about her role in the relationship. She does not even wait a moment (after hearing his step) to tell him the news, running “on tip toe down the darkened passage.” After she shuttles him out the door back onto the porch, she instinctively takes “the market things from Warren’s arms / And set[s] them on the porch.” This first silent exchange between the two implies a strong sense of duty she may feel toward her husband Warren. But as soon as they begin speaking, we learn her sense of responsibility is to kindness more than to some sort of marital obedience. Her first two sentences are a quick “Silas is back” and a plea for Warren to “Be kind.”
During the last haying season, Silas quit his job and left Warren and Mary to make up his work. Warren, wanting to keep his promise not to hire Silas back, does not feel much responsibility for an old farm hand he cannot depend on: “What good is he? Who else will harbor him / At his age for the little he can do?” Any duty he owed to Silas was severed when Silas walked off the job—that is, if Silas was just an employee who came on a few seasons ago. Is Silas really “nothing” to them, as Warren would insist, “any more / Than was the hound that came as stranger?” We learn as the conversation develops that Silas has been working for them for a long time, long enough to be incorporated into the family. Mary is perhaps more in touch with this sense of family duty at the beginning of the poem, though Warren begins to rethink his attitude toward Silas. When Mary tells him Silas is not doing well, that she found him “huddled against the barn-door fast asleep,” Warren grows more concerned, asking “Where did you say he’d been?”
Silas claims to still feel a duty toward the farm when he tells Mary “he meant to clear the upper pasture” and “ditch the meadow.” He has returned with a plan for the work, deciding it would be a good idea if they hired his old coworker, Harold Wilson, back too. Silas may also feel like family to the couple, as they had given him food, shelter, and respect for so many years. He asks for available work, though it is soon clear he has actually come to the house to spend his last days. With this realization, the issues of work and family responsibilities become larger issues, including the duty we have to guard human dignity and responsibility to strangers. Warren, echoing Cain in Genesis (demanding “Am I my brother’s keeper?”), asks Mary why Silas did not go to his own brother’s house to die; it should be his responsibility to tend to the dying Silas. The brother is a prosperous “director in the bank,” so he would have no problems paying the bills. “I think his brother ought to help, of course,” he rationalizes to Mary, “He ought of right / To take him in.”
Although Warren finally agrees to go in and see Silas for himself, having reconsidered his distanced stance, Mary still feels responsible for the man’s dignity and self-respect. She is not going to tolerate any of Warren’s possible harsh words, begging “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.” Mary does not want to disrespect Silas. Silas wants to come “home” and work and die in peace; Warren does not believe it is his duty to offer his house to the man who walked off the job in the middle of haying season.
The simple question seems to be “What is ‘home’?” Once again Frost reminds us it is a matter of responsibility: either home is “the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in,” as Warren asserts, or vise versa, as compassionate Mary corrects him, “I should have called it / Something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
In part because much of this poem is dialogue, the stanzas are not arranged regularly. Through most of the poem, the stanzas function like prose paragraphs, with a stanza break occurring with each new speaker. When the speaker shifts in the middle of a line, the opening line of the new stanza is appropriately indented to indicate that the opening line also completes the closing line of the previous stanza. Frost does this to maintain metrical regularity.
Much—but not all—of this poem is written in blank verse. This means that the meter of the lines is iambic pentameter, but there is no rhyme. Iambic means that each metrical foot contains one unstressed syllable followed by one stressed syllable, and pentameter means that there are five metrical feet in each line. In iambic pentameter each line will contain a total of ten syllables. One way to tell that this poem is not written entirely in iambic pentameter is to notice the number of lines that contain more than ten syllables. A line that varies from the established pattern is called a variant line. A poem that contains so much dialogue can be written in iambic pentameter in part because the English language is almost naturally stressed as iambic.
To understand this more easily, a diagram will help. Read line 21, found in the second stanza:
Enough at least to buy tobacco with
Topics for Further Study
- Why do you think Warren has a more difficult time sympathizing with Silas? Why does Mary understand him so well?
- Warren makes several conclusions about what “home” means. Do you agree with Warren when he says “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in”? Or do you agree with Mary that home is “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.” Who do you agree with? What is your definition of “home?”
- Write a narrative poem that features a conversation between two people discussing a person not present in the room. Using only dialogue, develop a life—including biographical details and personality traits—for the absent person which is real for the reader.
When the stresses are recorded, the iambic pentameter becomes clear:
Enough / at least / to buy / tobac / co with.
Frost’s collection North of Boston was published on the eve of World War I, which was the first war to use submarines, aerial bombings and chemical warfare. It began in Europe, where the battles between ethnic groups in the Balkan nations at the end of the nineteenth century led to a balance of power between two rival military alliances: the triple alliance of Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy, and the triple entente of Great Britain, France, and Russia. Most of the smaller countries were affiliated with one of these or the other. On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by a Serbian. When the Austrian government blamed Serbia, obligations to existing treaties pulled most of the nations into war, one at a time.
Compare & Contrast
- 1914: World War I begins less than a month after the assassination of the heir to the Austrian throne in Sarajevo, Bosnia. The war quickly spreads to Europe, Russia, and even Japan and will last most of the decade. America enters the war in 1917, though European losses are already reaching catastrophic figures.
Today: The region that made up the former Yugoslavia, which includes Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina, remains unstable after recent civil war and continued skirmishes between Serbs and other ethnic and religious groups.
- 1914: The German military creates two new weapons that will forever change the face of modern warfare. In August German pilots conduct the very first air raid on Paris, dropping small bombs on the city from low–flying biplanes. In April of the same year German ground troops attack French soldiers in Ypres with the first chemical weapons. The greenish-yellow clouds of chlorine gas, though only deadly at high exposure, blister the skin and delicate lung tissue of anyone within range of its contact.
Today: The Gulf War against Iraq in 1991 brought air warfare and chemical weapons back to the front of American consciousness. United States military “smart bombs” and “Cruise missiles” destroy targets located miles inside enemy territory with chilling accuracy. American troops, still in the region as of 1998, prepare to counter Iraq’s threats to use chemical and biological weapons. United Nations Security Council inspectors work to ensure that stockpile is methodically located and destroyed.
- 1914: Only two years after White Star Line passenger vessel SS Titanic sinks, the company launches a sister ship, the SS Britanic.
1998: American fascination with the tragic sinking sweeps the nation as the movie Titanic becomes the top-selling feature film of all time, earning numerous Oscars and millions in gross sales.
Originally, Americans were reluctant to become involved; after all, President Woodrow Wilson was reelected in 1916 with the campaign slogan “He Kept Us Out Of War.” In early 1917, though, Germany started using submarines against ships travelling to Great Britain, and the United States, which had warned against such action, was drawn into participating. When peace was declared in 1918, 32 nations had been involved in the fighting, with 37 million casualties and ten million civilian deaths.
The veterans who returned to the United States in 1918 were angry and disillusioned, having participated in destruction on a greater scale than the world had ever known. Of the one million Americans drafted and sent overseas, many came from small rural towns. They may never have gone beyond the county limits, much less traveled to Europe and killed people, if not for the war; the returning veterans brought back stories of their experiences, cracking the shell that secluded farm towns from the outside world.
In the 1910s, American writers began to look inward to create a distinctive American style, separate from European literature. Many regional writers, such as midwestern authors Willa Cather, Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, and Theodore Dreiser gained popularity and influenced younger authors such as Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos. These writers were determined to reflect the realities of everyday life, in both urban and rural settings. Many of the decade’s most important works were placed in rural settings, such as Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919) and Willa Cather’s O Pioneers! (1913).
American poets strived to break free from established traditions and create new, innovative forms. Frost’s first book, A Boy’s Will, was published to critical acclaim in May, 1913. One of his first major reviews was authored by Ezra Pound, an integral figure in Modern poetry. Although the book was praised for its technical craftsmanship, it was his next volume, North of Boston, that would show his true innovation and lasting contribution to American poetry. Frost invented a poetic language rich in dialogue between realistic people, crafting his lines around structures he called “sentence sounds.” This technique would become Frost’s first major contribution to American poetry.
Although most critics consider “The Death of the Hired Man” to be memorable, they disagree about its overall success. In his book A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics, Irving Howe considers Frost’s lyric poems to be generally more successful than his more dramatic ones but acknowledges that these dramatic monologues and dialogues represent a significant aspect of Frost’s work. About poems like “The Death of the Hired Man,” he says, they “are not contemptible but neither are they first-rate. They lack the urge to move past easy facilities that characterizes major writing. They depend too much on stock sentiments, …” Similarly, W.W. Robson, writing in The Southern Review, describes this poem as accomplished but not great: “This is one of Frost’s best known and finest poems, and no better illustration could be given of the poignancy he can achieve in spare allusive dialogue. Yet something forbids us to call ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ great poetry, …” Because he classifies this among Frost’s best works but declines to call it “great,” Robson seems to be saying that, compared to some other poets, Frost wrote very little great poetry.
On the other hand, A. Zverev, in a collection titled 20th Century American Literature: A Soviet View, reaches a much more positive conclusion about this poem, which he calls “one of Frost’s most brilliant,” and about Frost’s work in general. Part of the success of “The Death of the Hired Man,” according to Zverev, lies in the fact that it provides “the fullest treatment of Frost’s major themes.” In part because he is so enthusiastic about this poem, Zverev declares that, “Frost’s realism and sincere democratic impulses made him the greatest American poet of the 20th century.”
Jhan Hochman is a writer and instructor at Portland Community College in Portland, Oregon. In the following essay, Hochman examines the possible motivations behind the actions and dialogue of the characters in “The Death of the Hired Man.”
Robert Frost said that “all truth is a dialogue, that the big thing is conflicting goods, not good and evil.” One of the finest examples of Frost’s assertion is the poem “The Death of the Hired Man,” included in his second book of poetry, North of Boston (1914). The two conflicting goods in this poem are represented by Mary and Warren, a farm couple who must decide what to do about a chronically undependable hired hand named Silas. Silas returns to Mary and Warren’s farm after a period of absence, maintaining that he wants to work. As Mary tells Warren, it is plain to her that after having seen and talked to Silas, he is too worn out to do any work. It seems, instead, that Silas has come back to the farm not to work but to die. In choosing the farm, Silas has chosen well, since both Mary and Warren are depicted as kind, reasonable people.
“The Death of the Hired Man” is an extended dispute between wife and husband. Some commentators interpret the dialogue as one between justice (Warren) and mercy (Mary); it might also be construed as a dialogue between a Judaic or male love of principle first and individuals second (Warren), and a Christian or female love of the individual first and principle second (Mary). Warren’s position is based on a principle of exchange. Since Warren feels Silas did not keep up his end of the bargain, Warren believes he owes Silas nothing. Mary, on the other hand, placates Warren in the tradition of principle based on need—that those who can must take care of those who cannot, regardless of whether they deserve it. Warren gradually acquiesces to Mary’s entreaties and agrees to keep Silas on at the farm. When Warren goes to check on Silas, Silas is dead.
Because the farm hand died only a short time after returning to the farm, some critics believe that Silas knew he was too sick to work. For the sake of the poem, it is important to realize that Silas did not tell Mary and Warren just how sick he was. If he had told the truth about his impending death, it would have been easy for Mary and Warren to forgive him and take him in. The question of forgiveness would have hardly been worth the debate, and for Frost, that is the heart of the poem.
What Do I Read Next?
- Another New England poet many critics called the “new Frost” is Robert Francis. His well-crafted nature poems, gathered in Robert Francis: Collected Poems 1936-1976 nicely compliment any reading of Robert Frost.
- One of Frost’s favorite books was Walden by Henry David Thoreau. He was said to have read the book many times during his life, and was influenced by Thoreau’s in-depth discussion of ecological philosophies and communing with nature.
- In order to get a larger sense of just how influential Robert Frost was to American poetry, read George Montiero’s Robert Frost and the New England Renaissance, published in 1988.
As befits a subject conveyed in dialogue, “The Death of Hired Man” is written in blank verse, or usually unrhymed iambic pentameter (five pairs of unaccented and accented beats per line). Frost’s poem, however, deviates widely from both iambic and pentameter forms, inviting an even greater feel of conversation and of free verse (verse without rhyme or regular meter). He professed that he did not like the free-verse form, disparagingly referring to it as playing tennis without a net. Frost strived to write verse that sounded like conversation, and as a result, free verse often overpowered his intent to write regular iambic pentameter.
“The Death of the Hired Man” is a type of poem called an “eclogue,” a pastoral poem usually in dialogue form. Use of this form can be traced to Theocritus (c.308-c.240 B.C.), up to Virgil (70-19 B.C.), to John Gay (1685-1732) and to William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads influenced Frost with such statements as, “The principal object then, which I proposed to myself in these poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life.… Low and rustic life was generally chosen, because in that condition of life our elementary feelings co-exist in a state of greater simplicity .…” And, as did Wordsworth in such long narrative poems as The Ruined Cottage (written in 1797-98) and Michael (written in 1800), Frost takes his time with “The Death of a Hired Man” so as to let the argument and context unfold slowly as a rural conversation might.
The slow unfolding of “The Death of a Hired Man” is crucial not only to the pace of rural conversation, but also to the kind of suspense that is an important ingredient of the poem. The title lets readers know immediately that somewhere in this poem Silas will die, though when is uncertain. While Mary pleads and reasons with Warren, readers are likely to anticipate Silas’s inevitable death. Like an Alfred Hitchcock film where characters casually argue or converse while the threat of death or its discovery is imminent, Frost gives away the focus of the poem. This “giving away” is not like that of Greek plays, whose original audiences were likely to know not only the ending, but the story they were watching, enabling them to focus on the particular version or retelling. Frost’s title, then, does not undercut suspense, as it might seem by giving away the death, but creates it.
Furthermore, Frost’s relaxed pacing places the discovery of Silas’s corpse at the end of the poem, a time when the death can have no impact on the conversation. Had Silas been dead at the beginning or in the middle of the poem, Mary and Warren’s moral dilemma would have been undermined. Still, there is less of a predicament for Mary since, like the reader who has seen the poem’s title before its reading, Mary has seen the sad state Silas is in before her conversation with Warren. Her superior knowledge is likely to place the reader more on her side, even as Warren’s side of the story must also be taken into consideration.
There are two conflicts in this poem. One of these conflicts is concerned with gender. The fact that critics have associated Mary with mercy can be attributed to Mary being female. Yet while Mary’s gender might indeed make her more sympathetic to Silas’s plight, it is probably even more important that Mary has already seen Silas and has evaluated his poor condition, whereas Warren has not. Had Warren seen Silas, it is unlikely Warren would have turned Silas away. He, too, would have had mercy on the dying man. That Mary has seen Silas and has therefore, as the expression goes, “seen the light” about Silas’s condition is reinforced by images of Mary “musing on the lamp flame” at the beginning of the poem and trapping moonlight (the light of love) in her apron when the poem makes a significant turn (known as a peripeteia) on Mary’s decision to tell Warren that Silas has not come back to work but to die. Mary not only shows tenderness toward Silas (perhaps the lamp flame) but toward Warren (the moonlight).
The other conflict is about class. Silas’s being uneducated is set beside Harold’s education. Silas cannot understand how Harold could study Latin because he liked it, and then criticizes Harold for not believing that Silas could find water with a divining rod (“hazel prong”). Silas’s use of the hazel prong relates to his apparently long history of being a bit loose with the truth. There is also the contrast between Silas’s brother, who is rich, and Silas who refuses to ask his brother for anything. These stories position Silas as an uneducated, itinerant farm worker, yet a man who refuses to beg, who can “build a load of hay,” and who thinks he could have taught Harold “not to be the fool of books.” With his pride and prevarication, Silas is made a complicated figure, someone who evokes neither simple pity or simple scorn (depending on one’s view of the poor). This depiction of Silas prevents Warren, Mary, and readers from merely pitying an abject man. Thus the decision to take Silas becomes a greater challenge. Even Mary is not totally certain she wants to take Silas in since she agrees to visit Silas’s brother before she and Warren agree to take him in for an extended time.
While Silas and Mary are focal points for this poem, perhaps no character is as interesting as Warren, for he is the only character who changes. While Mary is always tender and Silas proud and deceptive, Warren changes from being resolute to being kindly uncertain. After Mary gathers moonlight and plays upon the morning glories strung from ground to roof, and redefines home as something one should not have to deserve (in other words, something that is everyone’s right), Mary is able accept Silas’s return. To show Warren beaten by superior logic and mercy, Frost has Warren commit a bit of violence against a little stick on the ground—he snaps it, indicating his anger at being made to buckle. With this gesture there is little need for Warren to speak, as is also true for Warren’s final gesture—Warren holding on to Mary’s hand when he tells her Silas is dead.
Warren’s reticence casts him as a mere stereotype of the silent male, or more specifically, the typical rural male. But Warren is no mere stereotype. He listens to Mary and is able to change, even making tactile contact with her at the end. If most readers are likely to identify or agree with Mary, the most important readers for this poem are those identifying with Warren. After all, nothing is as difficult for an artwork as changing those who come into contact with it. Perhaps after “The Death of a Hired Man” the definition of home will not be the lesser good that Warren called “the place where they have to take you in,” but the greater good Mary calls “something you somehow haven’t to deserve.”
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1998.
In the following excerpt, Marcus summarizes the critical reception of Frost’s North of Boston and analyzes the narratives of the two speakers in “The Death of the Hired Man.”
Frost’s second book, North of Boston, was published by David Nutt in London in 1914 and by Henry Holt in New York later the same year. Several of the poems seem to have been written during Frost’s first year in England, though some are probably revisions of draft material brought from America. The striking changes in style and Frost’s invention of a novel blank-verse narrative form represent highly self-conscious efforts partly based on his keen attention to common human speech. The book’s initial favorable reception in England and America was stronger than that given A Boy’s Will; many reviewers recognized the novelty of Frost’s blank-verse narratives, with their dialogue that combined convincing conversational idiom with traditional meters. The poet was also praised for his penetrating observations on human nature and a strong regional sense, though he later objected to being considered a local colorist. A few reviewers and some later critics, however, were so puzzled by the experimental element in his meters that they could not recognize them as blank verse, and some critics thought that Frost should turn his gifts to prose fiction. As the years passed, the reputation of the book and many of its poems continued to rise, and some critics think the volume remains his best. In 1948 W. G. O’Donnell argued that the book represented a tremendous advance over A Boy’s Will, which he saw as uncertain in voice, excessively old-fashioned in diction, and often close to sentimentality. North of Boston, on the other hand, he found to be Frost’s most enduring accomplishment because of its striking portrait of New England life and wonderfully honest representation of isolation and fractured human relationships.
Among its poems still considered masterpieces are “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” “A Servant to Servants,” and “The Wood-Pile,” while the frequently anthologized “The Death of the Hired Man” and “The Black Cottage” are rated only a little behind those.…
The readily accessible and popular “The Death of the Hired Man” … treats conflicts between individuality and social values, as manifested in the exchanges between Warren and Mary and acted out by their disloyal former hired man, Silas. As farm husband and wife debate whether to take Silas back, they examine his plight and claims, his strengths and weaknesses, and reveal their own feelings by gestures as well as words. Their talk focuses on how Silas’s disloyalty is a failure to fulfill obligations, which leaves open the question of their obligations to him. The characters and values of Mary and Warren are contrasted in the foreground, while their reminiscences sketch the character and history of the decent but weak Silas. Mary’s handling of Warren shows a wise, tender, and firm attitude toward both her husband and Silas. Her principles are mercy and love, whereas Warren, bordering on harshness, appeals to justice, law, and mutual responsibility. Silas’s plight is greater than theirs, his attempts to preserve self-respect having divided him between loyalty to longtime employers and self-delusion about his own value and deserts.
Silas’s obligation to them is halfway between the formal and the informal, and Warren feels betrayed by Silas’s not respecting what Warren has done for him. A truly formal obligation is represented by Silas’s rich brother, but Silas is too aware of his own weaknesses to ask for family help, though with his adopted family he can save his pride, for he knows they value his abilities and care about him. Silas’s conflicts between self-rejection and inflated pride are shown in the background by his verbal fights with Harold Wilson, the former college student turned teacher. Mary understands the mutual respect between them, which was partly soured by Silas’s defensive pity for Harold’s bookishness and lack of practical wisdom. Mary’s report on Silas’s weak condition and wandering attention contrasts to Warren’s self-righteous rehearsal of Silas’s flaws and his own grim determination to tell Silas that his disloyalty keeps him unwelcome.
Mary’s physical gestures suggest openness and control, whereas Warren’s show him working out aggression. Warren does, however, show admiration and possibly forgiveness for Silas when he recalls his farm skills, especially in haying. The conflict between Mary and Warren is delicately balanced in their famous alternative definitions of home. Warren’s calling it the place “Where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in” appeals to formal, almost legal, responsibility. Rather than contradict his view, Mary’s reply qualifies it subtly. For her, home is “Something you somehow haven’t to deserve,” meaning not an obligation fulfilled but rather a source of generosity or mercy. This thoughtful exchange leads Warren’s and Mary’s tones to merge, her tenderness admitting more criticism and his harshness softening but then veering back toward practicality as he goes to confront the already dead Silas, perhaps with some acceptance. Mary’s last speech and the description of the cloud striking the moon provide gentle foreboding, and the couple’s final handclasp, initiated by Warren, implies a bond of love including Silas.
Source: Mordecai Marcus, “North of Boston (1914),” in The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication, G. K. Hall and Co., 1991, pp. 41–44.
Brower, Reuben A., The Poetry of Robert Frost: Constellations of Intention, Oxford University Press, 1963.
Doyle, John Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost: An Analysis, Witwatersrand University Press, 1962.
Frost, Robert, Robert Frost: Poetry and Prose, edited by Edward Connery Lathem and Lawrance Thompson, Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1972.
Howe, Irving, “Robert Frost: A Momentary Stay,” in A World More Attractive: A View of Modern Literature and Politics, Horizon Press, 1963, pp. 144-57.
Marcus, Mordecai, The Poems of Robert Frost: An Explication, G. K. Hall, 1994.
Pritchard, William H., Robert Frost: A Literary Life Reconsidered, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984.
Robson, W.W., “The Achievement of Robert Frost,” in The Southern Review, Vol. 2, Autumn, 1966, pp. 735-61.
Zverev, A., “A Lover’s Quarrel with the World: Robert Frost,” 20th Century American Literature: A Soviet View, Progress Publishers, 1976, pp. 241-60.
Cramer, Jeffrey, Robert Frost Among His Poems, McFarland & Co., 1996.
Provides background information on almost every poem in Frost’s canon.
Cox, James, ed., Robert Frost: A Collection of Critical Essays, Prentice-Hall, 1962.
In this lengthy volume, Cox assembles a diverse range of essays on the life and work of Robert Frost.