In Robert Frost’s poignant yet realistic poem THE DEATH OF A HIRED MAN, written around 1905, the sad tale of a man named Silas is related by a husband and wife—Warren and Mary. Silas never engaged in the conversation, but he is the central character of the poem.
Little is said of Silas’ origins. He had a brother, a banker, who lived 11 miles from Warren and Mary. However, the itinerant Silas had returned, not to his family, but to his adopted family where he worked after his journeys here and there.
Perhaps, Silas was one of the thousands of hobos who rode the rails. They found work wherever they decided to settle for a bit.
They found fellowship in the “jungles”, hobo communities. Around the campfires and enjoying mulligan stew, they shared their adventures and misadventures.
These individuals who wandered with the winds (open boxcars) across the four directions of the country found a way of life which harkened back to the ancient nomads. They found an oasis near the railyards of major cities like Chicago, a haven where they were not criticized or judged.
Growing up, my bed was by the widow facing the train tracks down the hill and across Main Street. As I lay in my bed, I heard the rumble of trains coming and going.
I wondered what it would be like to hop a boxcar and allow myself to be taken to places far from my mountain hamlet. Of course, I never did, but those brave souls who left their homes for whatever reason were real adventurers facing unknown dangers because life on the rails had its threats as well as its joys.
These individuals rejiggered their life style to pursue whatever the future had in store. For the thousands like Robert Frost’s woebegone Silas they migrated because they had that “sea fever” that John Mansfield wrote in his poem about sea sailors.
These land sailors on the rails experienced the “vagrant gypsy life”. They answered “a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied”.
Returning to Silas, he was old and worn out and had made a final return to his fair haven. Mary told her husband: “Warren, he has come home to die.”
Of course, Warren was surprised by the word home and protested. They were not Silas’ family, but Mary continued: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.”
For the land sailors what they viewed as home must have been very precious to them. For home invokes many memories, and too often on this planet traversing the cosmos, what home means to many has different aspects based on their own realities.
Many young people left home to find adventure, escape from their harsh environs, or they were tossed out because they were viewed as a disgrace to their families. The disgrace of an unwanted pregnancy of yesterday, or of today where one’s sexual orientation is overwhelming for family to accept are the sad notes of the violin each day in the diverse communities across this land.
Sometimes, disgrace was a more dominant trait than parental love. For being ostracized from one’s religious heritage forms that wall of separation where acceptance and love barricade themselves from someone who is different.
Warren decided to go see Silas. To Mary’s surprise he returned too soon.
“Slipped to her side, caught up her hand and waited.
‘Warren,’ she questioned.
‘Dead,’ was all he answered.
This is how Frost ended the poem. Was it based on a real event? What we know is that it probably was, since this scene played out on many farms where the hired man worked and died.
Today many souls long for and some venture to travel the rails of life wherever they take them. Perhaps, the nomad spirit still lingers under the crust of civilized and educated hearts.
“As for me, I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote. I love to sail forbidden seas, and land on barbarous coasts.” Herman Melville, Moby Dick
G. D. Williams © 2019
The Hired Man by Robert Frost
Sea Fever by John Mansfield