What does Harold Wilson represent to Silas?
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Wilson functions as a kind of foil to another character in the poem – the elderly hired man, Silas, mentioned in the poem’s title. Silas has come back to a farm where had previously worked before he quit that job. He wants his old job back, but the owner of the farm, Warren, is reluctant to employ him again, despite the urgings of his wife, Mary. Warren considers Silas an unreliable worker. Mary, however, tries to make a case for Silas. She tells Warren that when she spoke with the old man earlier in the day,
He ran on [about] Harold Wilson – you remember –
The boy you had in haying four years since (61-62)
Silas’s relationship with Harold was (and remains) complicated. Although they worked side-by-side, they argued frequently. Harold was in love with education and wanted to go to college. At the time the poem opens, Harold has indeed gone to college and in fact is now teaching in the college where he studied.
Harold is in many ways the opposite of Silas. Harold is young; Silas is old. Harold is educated in book learning; Silas is not, although he possesses a practical intelligence. Harold has his whole life ahead of him; Silas is near the end of his life. In some ways, Silas seems to have been jealous of Harold, but now he seems to miss his former co-worker.
Silas in some ways seems to regard himself almost as a father-figure to the young man. He tries to teach Harold practical lessons in life and cannot understand Harold’s interest in such arcane subjects as Latin. On the one hand, Silas seemed at one time to regard Harold as a rival; now, however, he misses his contact with the young man.
If Harold is youth, Silas is age. If Harold is life, Silas is death. If Harold is the embodiment of ambition and achievement, Silas is the symbol of a life lived without much direction or worldly accomplishment. Silas’s feelings about Harold thus help us assess the personality and nature of Silas himself. His attitudes toward Harold help add poignancy to the poem as we witness an old man realizing that youth is, for him, a thing of the past.