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Robert Frost

The Death of the Hired Man

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1914

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Summary and Study Guide


First composed in 1905 while 30-something Robert Frost struggled to succeed as a gentleman farmer in rural New Hampshire, “The Death of the Hired Man” centers on a conversation between a New England farmer, Warren, and his wife, Mary, over what to do with a former hired hand, Silas, a homeless old man now in failing health who returns to the farm uninvited and, with winter approaching, appears to expect work. Reflecting Frost’s interest in writing for the stage, Frost uses blank verse to capture the conversational feel of the couple’s tense exchange.

The couple’s debate over Silas introduces themes that Frost explores in later poems: the nature of mercy, the definition of family and home, and ultimately the absoluteness of mortality. Since its publication in North of Boston, Frost’s 1914 breakthrough second collection, “Hired Man” has become, despite its length (175 lines) and its pessimistic ending, one of the most anthologized and discussed of Frost’s verse narratives, among them “Mending Wall,” “Home Burial,” and “The Housekeeper,” each of which appeared in North of Boston.

Poet Biography

Although Robert Frost’s first book of poetry was not published until he was nearly 40, by his death in 1963 he was America’s best-known and most lauded poets (including four Pulitzer Prizes). His poetry collections were best-sellers. Frost himself was a celebrity. His craggy face, bone-white hair, and perpetually bent grin appeared on magazine covers. With his irascible charm and his snarky humor, he became a fixture in the new medium of television. Frost, however, created this public persona as America’s folksy sage against a traumatic private life—a tempestuous marriage; a volatile relationship with his six children, four of whom he outlived; and a lifelong struggle with depression.

Born in San Francisco, raised in Massachusetts, educated (but never completing a degree) first at Dartmouth and then at Harvard, Frost wanted to be a poet but struggled to find a publisher. To make ends meet, Frost tried teaching and poultry farming (disastrously, he was too ironic for the first and too cerebral for the second). In 1911, with a small annuity from his grandfather’s estate, Frost moved his family to England, then the center of Modernism, a radical movement in the poetic arts that encouraged upending every assumption about how a poem looks and sounds. Frost found an audience receptive to his experimental colloquial poetry, accessible yet deceptively simple.

Frost returned to New England in 1915 a poet with an international reputation. He would publish poetry for nearly 50 years. He accepted writer-in-residence appointments at universities where he delighted confounding students attempting to pin down the meaning of his poetry. His national status never wavered, climaxing with a dramatic reading at the 1961 inauguration of President John Kennedy.

At Frost’s death at the age of 88 in January 1963, Congress declared a national day of mourning, the first given to a poet. Frost was buried in the churchyard of the Old First Church in Bennington, Vermont, his simple marble headstone bearing a quote from his poem “The Lesson for Today”: “I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.”

Poem Text

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.

Frost, Robert. “The Death of the Hired Man.” 1914. Poetry Foundation.


When Warren, a farmer, returns from market, his wife Mary greets him at the porch with news that Silas, an itinerant farm hand who helped out off and on during haying season, has returned unexpectedly. Warren is not happy—the last time Silas left at a critical time during haying. “What good is he?” (Line 15). He regards Silas as disloyal and refuses to re-hire him.

Mary urges compassion. Treat him, she pleads, with dignity. “He’s worn out” (Line 33), she tells him. She found him huddled against the barn door asleep despite the chill. She barely recognized him. She could see Silas’s health was failing. Mary insisted Silas come in and sit by the stove.

Warren, however, suspects Silas returned to secure late autumn work, maybe cutting and manuring the hay fields. Mary assures Warren that Silas’s health made such an idea unlikely. In his ramblings, Silas had even asked about re-hiring Harold Wilson, a college student who worked with Silas four years earlier. Silas regrets how he mocked Harold’s schooling, how he “couldn’t make the boy believe / He could find water with a hazel prong” (Lines 85-86). Silas now wants the chance to share with the boy the one practical skill Silas has, bundling near-perfect bales of hay, tight “like big birds’ nests” (Line 96). But Harold, Mary and Warren both know, finished schooling long ago and now teaches in town.

Mary tries to get her husband to change his mind. “Warren,” she says, “he has come home to die” (Line 114). Warren believes home is not something a person deserves, home is the place “where, when you have to go there/ They have to take you in” (Line 123). Mary believes that families should offer an unconditional that makes coming home a right that shouldn’t have to be earned. Warren reminds Mary that Silas has a brother, a wealthy banker, who lives only 13 miles away. Mary guesses that for Silas to have come here instead of his brother’s, Silas’s family has dismissed him because he is indigent, “the kind that kinsfolk can’t abide” (Line 148). Silas even refused Mary’s offer of a bed, preferring the uncomfortable straight-back chair, “his old head on that sharp-edged kitchen chair-back” (Line 155). Mary assures Warren that if he sees how Silas looks, he will pity him. Warren need not worry that Silas will abandon him again: “His working days are done” (Line 160), Mary tells him. If Silas is sick, Warren replies, hiring him makes no economic sense.

Mary counsels Warren to go into the kitchen and talk to Silas. She warns him not to mock him if Silas talks about mowing the hay field before winter sets in. Warren agrees. While she waits, she watches as a passing cloud eclipses the moon. When Warren returns, he tells Mary that Silas has died.