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Audio: Robert Frost reads ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ (with texts)

Running time: 15 minutes

Robert Frost reads “West-Running Brook” and “The Death of the Hired Man.” These poems, really miniature plays, use a rural New England milieu to express deeper emotional themes of human relationships and the imminence of death. Frost, who was born in 1874 and died in 1963, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1924, 1931, 1937, and 1943. He once described a poem as “a momentary stay against confusion.” These readings were recorded in 1956 at Frost’s home.


West-Running Brook

Fred, where is north?"
"North? North is there, my love.
The brook runs west."
"West-running Brook then call it."
(West-running Brook men call it to this day.)
"What does it think it's doing running west
When all the other country brooks flow east
To reach the ocean? It must be the brook
Can trust itself to go by contraries
The way I can with you—and you with me—
Because we're—we're—I don't know what we are.
What are we?"
"Young or new?"
"We must be something.
We've said we two. Let's change that to we three.
As you and I are married to each other,
We'll both be married to the brook. We'll build
Our bridge across it, and the bridge shall be
Our arm thrown over it asleep beside it.
Look, look, it's waving to us with a wave
To let us know it hears me."
"Why, my dear,
That wave's been standing off this jut of shore—"
(The black stream, catching on a sunken rock,
Flung backward on itself in one white wave,
And the white water rode the black forever,
Not gaining but not losing, like a bird
White feathers from the struggle of whose breast
Flecked the dark stream and flecked the darker pool
Below the point, and were at last driven wrinkled
In a white scarf against the far shore alders.)
"That wave's been standing off this jut of shore
Ever since rivers, I was going to say,
Were made in heaven. It was n't waved to us."

"It wasn't, yet it was. If not to you
It was to me—in an annunciation."

"Oh, if you take if off to lady-land,
As't were the country of the Amazons
We men must see you to the confines of
And leave you there, ourselves forbid to enter,—
It is your brook! I have no more to say."

"Yes, you have, too. Go on. You thought of something."

"Speaking of contraries, see how the brook
In that white wave runs counter to itself.
It is from that in water we were from
Long, long before we were from any creature.
Here we, in our impatience of the steps,
Get back to the beginning of beginnings,
The stream of everything that runs away.
Some say existence like a Pirouot
And Pirouette, forever in one place,
Stands still and dances, but it runs away,
It seriously, sadly, runs away
To fill the abyss' void with emptiness.
It flows beside us in this water brook,
But it flows over us. It flows between us
To separate us for a panic moment.
It flows between us, over us, and with us.
And it is time, strength, tone, light, life and love—
And even substance lapsing unsubstantial;
The universal cataract of death
That spends to nothingness—and unresisted,
Save by some strange resistance in itself,
Not just a swerving, but a throwing back,
As if regret were in it and were sacred.
It has this throwing backward on itself
So that the fall of most of it is always
Raising a little, sending up a little.
Our life runs down in sending up the clock.
The brook runs down in sending up our life.
The sun runs down in sending up the brook.
And there is something sending up the sun.
It is this backward motion toward the source,
Against the stream, that most we see ourselves in,
The tribute of the current to the source.
It is from this in nature we are from.
It is most us."
"Today will be the day
You said so."
"No, today will be the day
You said the brook was called West-running Brook."

"Today will be the day of what we both said."


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 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.

Included in Vox Populi for educational purposes only.

Source: Yankee Magazine

2 comments on “Audio: Robert Frost reads ‘West-Running Brook’ and ‘The Death of the Hired Man’ (with texts)

  1. rhass1
    March 12, 2023

    Death of the Hired Man is one of his greats!


    • Vox Populi
      March 12, 2023

      Indeed it is. I believe that The Death of the Hired Man is one of the best poems in the English language. It captures the insouciant cruelty of people who have power over others.


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This entry was posted on March 12, 2023 by in Opinion Leaders, Poetry and tagged , , .

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