The Death Of The Hired Man || Summary and Analysis

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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 harbour 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 recognise 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."
"Warren!"
"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 sympathise. 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
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 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."
"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 to-day.
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. He won't be made ashamed
To please his brother, worthless though he is."
"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 to-night.
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.

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."
The Death Of The Hired Man

Summary and Analysis

Introduction:

      The Death of the Hired Man was published in North of Boston, 1914. It is definitely one of the most powerful and dramatically lyrical poems of Frost. It is dramatic because the poet does not speak to his readers, directly. His ever-fecund imagination spins two characters, who express their emotions, feelings and sentiments. It is through a dialogue between them that the narration takes place. The form, in Theocritean terms is a mime. But what is surprising is that it is much more dramatic and intense than a mime. If is similar to a mime also in respect of relation and contrast between rules and in a gradual progression towards the climactic moment and then a denouement.

      The shadows, of barriers and boundaries are always cast in the poetry of Robert Frost. Here, in this poem it is Silas's inflated self-respect (almost pride) which is the barrier separating him from his rich and prosperous brother - A somebody - director in the bank'. Silas is old, decrepit and helpless. His plight evokes our sympathy as he does not even have any refuge. It is only Mary who understands, sympathises and pleads his case. In North of Boston, there are a lot of abnormal, unbalanced, people but there are also sound and normal people "...like the one in The Death of the Hired Man who discovers the meaning of home - 'something we somehow haven't to deserve' - and learns that everyone needs at least one place of refuge where the demands of strict justice are tempered by a spirit of charity."

Summary:

      The Death of the Hired Man is a demonstration of Frost's capacity for compression of progression. Within a brief span of two hundred and forty-five lines, Frost builds up a complete plot. The hired man, who is the central character of the poem makes an appearance only at the end of it. His death is the central event of the poem - the axis on which the entire action revolves - and the meaning of his death unfurls before us layer after layer through successive presentation of the impressions of Warren and Marry.

      Warren does not want to take back Silas into service. Silas is the old farm-hand who had irritated Warren and given evidence of ingratitude, time and again, by leaving him in hope of higher wages, precisely when he was needed most - at the time of harvest. The dramatic conflict in the poem arises from Mary's consistent efforts to persuade her husband to have pity on Silas, not with standing the past and to help Silas when he most needed it - when he is broken, old and helpless. She is not pleading from any practical point of view - she is pleading his case only on humanitarian grounds. Warren is nursing old grudges and does not want to take back Silas because he did not think him to be reliable. Moreover, Warren has not yet seen Silas after his return at present, and so is completely unaware that Silas is in deep waters - he is on the periphery of death. He does not have any idea that Silas could collapse any moment. Every step in Mary's argument with her husband throws fresh light on Silas' character. By the end we see his character in true colours. He comes out to be a man with a heavy dosage of self-respect.

      "The final truth about his personality is his death." We, as the sane and alert readers of the poem are not shocked to learn about his death at the end. This seems to be the imminent culmination to all what we have been told in the poem. His death provides the anchoring point of his character and life. Guided by his impractical idealism, he prefers to seek work at Warren's, to living on the mercy and charity of his relatives. He would be able to maintain his independence in some measure, in some form, however mitigated. Putting this idea in very apt words, Lynen says: "His self-respect has been the essence of his life, and now that this self-respect can exist only as a charitable fiction, his life is, in the truest sense ended."

Critical Appreciation:

      The poem has been universally praised. There are many different qualities in the poem and every reader finds something or the other appealing in the poem. Its authentic power, its conversational beauty, its rich sense of ordinary life and its eloquent descriptions have al been praised from different quarters. Of course, the best-known and most quoted lines of the poem are the ones in which Mary and Warren define home in their own ways.

      The poem describes without much ado, one of the most touching phenomena of human existence. Spelling out the theme of the poem, Brown says, "the drama of man's justice and woman's mercy and the pull between both values when set against the simplest and deepest of claims - the dignity of man - is the main theme of the poem". But Thompson feels that the central theme is the gradual conversion of the husband's irrational and stubborn prejudice through the wife's consistently persistent persuasion. The return and death of Silas, the hired man, 'is only secondary', he thinks! "The psychological implications of the poem become apparent only when one recognizes the gradual ascendancy of the wife's latest pity and kind line until it dominates the husband's outspoken intolerance and anger." It appears that the entire story is being told in hushed whispers and silent undertones.

      The poem is a rare example of technical achievement of the poet in blending sound values. Many of Frost's poems are in blank verse but there is in no other poem such variety and range as in this one. Thompson here deserves to be quoted: "To appreciate the variety and range which Frost achieves in blank verse, we must be aware of the fine modulation required by different situations and characters in the dramatic narratives and dialogues... the basic material pattern and the rhythm of the conversational words are nicely integrated". The epigrammatic force and terseness of some lines should be noted:

"Poor Silas, so concerned for other folk,
And nothing to look backward to with pride.
And nothing to look forward with hope,
So now and never any different."

      The poem is also an evidence of Frost's skill as an artist. He dexterously balances strict iambic with loose iambic creating impression of speech rhythms. There is, of course, no element of suspense in the poem; neither did Frost intend to surprise his reader by unpredictable twists and turns of the story. He substituted it with dramatic irony.

Paraphrase:

      Line. (1-7). Mary sat musing...she said - In these opening lines of the poem, the poet gives an almost photographic description of Mary, rich with visual details. She appears to be a very good human being. She has sympathy and concern for their servant Silas. She is especially worried about her husband Warren's attitude towards Silas. She desires that it should soften. At the slightest sound of her husband's footsteps, Mary runs towards the passage through which he was coming. She wants to inform him about Silas's arrival before he (her husband) has entered the house. As she follows her husband, while he is entering the house she entreats him earnestly to be kind towards the old servant who had come back, all by himself. This simple descriptive passage is remarkably excellent, technically.

      Line. (11-30). When was...I'm done - "He (the husband) is defensive, not quite speaking to his wife, and while reporting his debate with Silas, he is really carrying on an argument with himself. His run-of-speech is abrupt, with many stops and few connectives, full of imperatives and wilful declarations, turning aside brusque rhetorical or cross-examining questions. The seal of his tone is set by nasal have-to's; he'll have to soon or late. (Home is the place where, when you have to go there...) The character that grows out of these expressions and others like them is the maker of good bargains, the shrewd detector of motives, the uncompromising speaker of the ugly truth."

      Line. (33-39). He's worm out....till you see - Mary is imploring her husband sincerely to show kindness to their servant Silas. Warren is rather stern, harsh and unforgiving towards Silas and does not want to take him back in service. Very deftly and showing psychological insight, Mary wants to touch the sensitive core of her husband's heart. Hoping to rouse his sense of pity, she tells him that Silas is unbelievably worn out by age and worries. She also informs him that Silas was so completely exhausted and tired that it was not possible for him to move any further. He had fallen asleep beside the stove. As she was coming back from Rowe's she saw Silas lying beside the above - a sight which provoked her to optimum pity. This also brought strange and frightening ideas to her mind. She tells her husband that suffering and miseries had almost transformed (negatively) Silas - so much so that at first she could not recognize him. Then she requests her husband to withhold his bubbling anger till he had at least a glimpse of Silas. Thompson's analysis of the artistic excellence of the passage, exhibits a deep, penetrative study of the poem. He says" the meaning of the sentences, by themselves, conveys Mary's solicitude. But the quality of that solicitude, as it is given in the tone of her voice, is amplified by the interplay of speech rhythms and metrical rhythms. The entire passage is contrastingly conspicuous as it is set against Warren's angry utterances. Technically, it highlights the pathos of the scene and Mary's compassionate nature.

      Line. (41-44). He didn't...nodding off - Mary is consistently trying or to rouse pity in her husband for Silas. She tries all methods. She tells him that despite her best efforts to make Silas talk about his experiences of travel, he continued to remain perfectly quiet, dumb-sans any speech. We may conclude that Silas was dumb either out of grief or with fatigue.

      Line. (52-58). Surely you...he jumbled everything - Mary is trying her level best fo save the occasion. She says that Silas wanted to live respectably and in order to maintain his self-respect he had said that he would do work in the meadows for his master. She also said that Silas had assured that in addition to that he would clear the upper pasture. She now once again makes an appeal to his softer emotions. She says that she wished he had seen Silas talk. She pointed out that though he assured all this, he has spoken everything in a confused manner. This perhaps depicts his unsound state of mind.

      Line. (61-72). He ran on....pitch it on - Mary is still trying to extract sympathy from her husband. She gives an account of Silas's quarrel with his college friend Harold. Through this, she wants to convince her husband that Silas had become mentally deranged and thus deserved a bit of sympathy.

      Line. (73. Yes). l...earshot - This reply is manifestation of the husband's altitude of unconcern, and indifference.

      Line. (74-90). Well, those..a load of hay - Mary's persistence is really laudable. She is still making a full-blooded attempt to evoke sympathy in her husband. Now she refers to Silas's good qualities, e.g., his keen desire to find rationale behind everything and his sharp intellect, because of which he could find water with a hazel prong.

      Line. (101-102). He hates to...other folk - These words are spoken by Warren and are ample proof that Warren's attitude towards Silas has started softening down. Warren now grants that Silas does have certain attributes that are highly commendable. He specially mentions the noble quality of caring for and helping others at the cost of his own interests.

      Line. (103-105). Poor Silas...never any different - By now Warren has softened down in his attitude towards, Silas. Surprisingly, enough, when his wife Mary speaks highly of Silas's character, he does not contradict her. Instead, he himself lays his finger at something very good in his character Silas has never wanted any boy to read and end up a mere bookworm. Silas was as concerned about the welfare of other people as he was detached from his own personal life. For him his life held no possibilities and promises. There was nothing at which he could look back with pride. His past was an impenetrable darkness and his future a blanket of hopelessness and despair His ego had dwarfed into non-existence and his good sense could not be clouded by any selfish desires. He had attained a generally unattainable state of mind which is qualified by a rare serenity and equanimity of temper.

      Line. (106-115). Part of...this time - The setting of the moon is seen as roughly momentous. It is most aptly associated with the woman, who is almost a receptacle of fresh impressions. Her husband has noticed nothing beyond or outside the argument which is only proper because of his masculine concentration. Her gestures are truly feminine and essentially countryside. The meaning with which the poet endows her movements might come from her - and the meaning was there all throughout.

      Line. (116-125). Home...to deserve - In these lines both Mary and Warren try to define home. Of course these definitions shed some light on the characters of the persons who propound them. Brower says that the effect of gesture is heard in home; he mocked gently.. These definitions are not 'Home Thoughts', but 'vital sentences' - sentence sounds, with dramatic force that reaches out beyond grammar. The difference between the definitions by husband and wife is obvious by the contrasting brute-sounds of have to' and 'haven't to'.

      Line. (147-152). Silas is...his brother - These lines show that Mary has a firm intuitive insight into Silas's character. This provides a sharp contrast to her husband's method, which is of slow gropings and searchings.

Conclusion:

      After commenting on, and critically examining the poem the final test of a poet's excellence is his sense of discretion - the sense of inclusion and elimination of the relevant and the irrelevant. In best of Frost's poems there is nothing superfluous, nothing lacking - everything is as it should be. In such poems, the last lines can work as reliable touchstones. The last lines of the poem are definitely in consonance with the atmosphere and tone built up earlier:

"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."

      The Death of the Hired Man can be regarded as one of the rare achievements of Frost in which both the poetic sensibility and artistry are unparalleled in heights.

Annotations:

      L. 1. Musing - contemplating silently. L. 8. Market things - things which he had brought home from the market. L. 15. Harbour him - give him shelter; engage him as a servant. L. 15. Harbour - to lodge or entertain. L. 21. Be beholden - be obliged to others. L. 23. Wages - payment made for one's labour. L. 27-28. There is some...pocket money - It implies that someone has been trying to presuade him to leave me, by tempting him with offers of pocket-money. L. 28. Coax - to presuade by fondling or flattery. L. 35. Huddled - anything put up confusedly. L. 35. Barn - a building in which grain, hay etc. is stored. L. 48. Ditch - to make any long narrow receptacle for water.

      L. 58. Jumbled - talked incoherently; talk was confused and indistinct. L. 61. He ran on - he talked constantly of. L. 65. Will make a team of work - will co-operate and work together. L. 68. Likely - promising. L. 68-69. Daft on education - too eager to get bookish education which is of no use in practical life. L. 76. Piqued him - irritated him. L. 76. Piqued - angered or vexed by wounded pride. L. 86. Hazel - a light brown colour. L. 86. Prong - the spike of fork or a similar instrument. L.91-92. I know that...its place - the husband at last acknowledges that Silas was not altogether useless. He was very skilful in making bundles of hay, tying them and numbering them. L. 94. Dislodge it - throw it down.

      L. (106-113). Part of a moon...in the night - the enraptured, sensuous beauty of this descriptive passage has been noticed and commented upon by many critics. It seems that the poet was on the look out for a chance and wherever there is the slightest possibility, he grabs it and displays his powers of description. L. 110. Morning-glory - an American plant with white or purple flowers. Strings - twigs that looked like strings. L. 112. As if she....tenderness - as if she were playing some soft music on the string like twigs of morning-glory. L. 121. Trail - anything drawn out in length. L. 134. A somebody - some one rich and important. L. 142. In claiming kin - in calling him his brother.

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