Monday, March 28, 2016

Death of the Hired Hand by Robert Frost

Photo: Haymaking, undated, oil on canvas by American artist Dwight William Tryon (1849–1925). Image courtesy of The Athenaeum. (I stole this from the Library of Congress's website of Frost's poem, "The Death of the Hired Hand," which you should read by clicking this link, or the one below.)

So I'm back to the Library of Congress's "Story of the Week," though I'm as behind on them as I am on my work and on my writing. It seems that I'm always behind everything these days, including my sleep. (Though, thankfully, not my mortgage.) Actually, I am very behind on my "Story of the Week" emails, which I have sent directly to me. That causes the backlog, of course, but they are definitely worth it. As far back as I can remember, I've only read maybe five that I didn't care for. (One, recently, was about Henry James's last assistant in his final eight years. I thought she'd have more fascinating things to say about the latter 19th Century's more famous writers, but mostly she just wrote about how he changed a lot of wordy sentences in his most popular works. She says some things that directly contradict what I've read about him; the worst was when she said he never used his fame to threaten or to use against somebody for nefarious purposes--which is a lie.)

Anyway, I just read "The Death of the Hired Hand," by Robert Frost. It's the one with the famous lines: 'Home is the place where, when you have to go there,/They have to take you in.'

This line is meant much more negatively than you might think. It's followed by 'I should have called it/Something you somehow haven't to deserve.' It's said by a farmer whose hired hand keeps taking off on him, so the guy is someone you can't trust, but who you feel obligated to take back in again. Not because you've missed him, but because he's like a lost dog and you pity him. The famous line is said by most (who haven't read the poem) as a line that someone will say about actual family who has to take you in because they're family. But Frost, who was shockingly cold and quite the nihilist, meant it to come from the POV of the farmer saying it, and not from the POV of the one who has to go home. It's not meant nicely, and those who say it like it is, like they have to be allowed in, are missing the point that they're supposed to feel like the pitied, like they'll be let in like the neighborhood's wet mongrel who people just can't leave out in the rain. The line means you'll be taken in not because of family obligation, but because of pity. The hired hand, in fact, had a brother who lived just 13 miles away, but this brother was a banker, and the hired hand didn't want to be pitied by his brother the banker. He'd rather be pitied by the farmer he keeps deserting. Again, the famous lines make more sense knowing the whole poem. And it ain't pretty, and it ain't happy. Frost is rarely either.

Frost is often misread, mostly because of those campfire poetry readings where he came across as a pre-Mister Rogers Mister Rogers.

I've got an English degree, but I somehow managed not to read too much of Frost. I guess I thought it was mostly homespun but drawn-out wisdom, amongst quaint New Englanders, who mostly keep to themselves. Good fences make good neighbors, after all. But there's a lot of genius there, and Frost is a magician who ably hides his literary tricks, which most poets seem incapable of doing. I don't see the obvious alliteration or cadences in Frost that I spot elsewhere, and when I see those, I lose my suspension of disbelief. (I speak like I'm Shakespeare, though my poetry mostly sucks. I've written exactly one that's sold.)

But I've mostly liked what I've read, though I stayed away from his longer ones, like this one. This poem is almost a short story, really, and is almost completely in dialogue, which I don't like in my poems. I also don't like them long, as per Edgar Allan Poe's dictum that all poems should be short--and then he wrote long ones. But I liked this one now, though I didn't when I was younger, perhaps because I didn't get it, or because I felt I might be the one who would have to go home and be taken in--and thereby pitied. Which I kinda was, I think. Best not to think about that now.

At any rate, there's genius here, and a message about human nature. You'll feel like you're the farmer who keeps getting deserted, yet you'll also feel like the hired hand, who keeps deserting, and then coming back with his tail between his legs. You might feel like you're the banker up the street, if you're lucky.

But sooner or later we're all the hired hand who lays down for the last time. And when that moment comes, you have to decide who you're willing to be a burden to.

Like I said, it ain't pretty, and it ain't happy. But it's real, and it's true. That's Frost's genius.

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