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North of Boston

Posted by Tracy Poff on February 17, 2014

Robert Frost’s second book of poetry, North of Boston, was published in 1914, by David Nutt in London, and by Henry Holt in New York.

North of Boston contains much longer poems, on average, than A Boy’s Will, but honestly I’m not as happy with it. First, though, let me pick out a selection from a poem that I enjoyed.

“The Death of the Hired Man” is probably my single favorite poem in the book, less because of pretty words and more because of how effectively the story is told. In short, Silas, a man in past times hired by Warren to help on his farm, has returned, in the Winter, in a bad way. Warren is upset, because Silas had left when he was needed, seeking better wages. Warren’s wife, Mary, scolds him for being cold:

“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.”

In the end (it’s no surprise, given the title) Silas does die, and that’s it. Though Silas doesn’t speak, in the poem, Mary speaks for him, relaying his words and interpreting his thoughts. The poem reflects on a number of things: the relationship between Silas and his employers; what obligations they have toward one another; particularly, the ‘obligation’ of one’s home to take one in; and, the sort of concerns a man has, as he comes to his death.

As I said, I wasn’t as happy with this book as I was with A Boy’s Will. I can’t say for sure that the average poem North of Boston is any worse than the average poem in that book, but I think that North of Boston manages somehow to be less than the sum of its parts. The poems share some common themes among them, but they don’t build upon the themes, or explore them in a way to give you a fuller picture, so revisiting the themes feels more like repeating a thought than expanding upon it.

Too, some of the poems go on too long–not because of any general preference on my part for short poetry, but because they exhaust the points they’re trying to make well before they run out of words with which to make them.

Finally, the poems in this book, like “The Death of the Hired Man”, are mostly dialogues. The speakers in several of the poems have voices very similar to my ear, which is especially damaging, as it makes the feeling of a poem gone on too long carry over from one to another in a most unfortunate fashion. It’s perhaps unfair of me–had I read the poems spaced far apart I might have considered them each individually better–but I cannot help what I feel.

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