Unpretentious poet Walter Fossdiscovered one of life’s secrets

Image: 123RF/ Yulia Grogoryeva

“ ... let me live in a house by the side of the road and be a friend to man.” More than two decades ago, a dear family friend, Margaret, sent me a writing pad’s worth of information about me: her observations, thoughts on my talents and skills, and what was likely to become of me, as the years went by, depending on the efforts I put into nurturing my natural potential, and dealing with obstacles, both self-created and circumstantial.

It is one of my most treasured gifts, and is yellowed and creased with rereading. But, until last week, I had never considered why she began her missive with a long, quaint poem by Sam Walter Foss ——House by the Side of the Road.

“There are hermit souls that live withdrawn

In the peace of their self-content;

There are souls, like stars, that dwell apart,

In a fellowless firmament;

There are pioneer souls that blaze their paths

Where highways never ran;

But let me live by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.”

Neither she nor I knew then who had authored the poem, and so I determined to find out.

Sam Walter Foss was a 19th-century American poet and librarian, whose works included the “House” poem, and various other pieces hailed for celebrating “the common man”.

Foss lived a simple, successful life. His mother died when he was four, and he worked on his father’s farm during winter, attending school in summer.

The New England Historical Society describes him thus: “Foss had no pretensions, which may be why he doesn’t appear in many anthologies of great American poems.

“He wrote hundreds of comic, homespun poems that championed the common man in his battles against pretentiousness and authority.

I have two degrees in English literature, and I had never heard of Foss until I hunted him down.

“Not that this would have bothered Foss, since he had clinched the secret to a happy life.

“After earning a degree at Brown University, he married the love of his life, had two children, and for many years worked as the librarian of the Somerville Public Library.”

The point of his poem — and the reason why Margaret linked it to what she perceived as my best shot at a good destiny — was that greatness lies in the simplest of things: being kind to others.

To “be a friend to man” is, without doubt, the answer to almost every problem we have.

“Let me live in a house by the side of the road

Where the race of men go by-

The men who are good and the men who are bad,

As good and as bad as I. I would not sit in the scorner’s seat

Nor hurl the cynic’s ban-

Let me live in a house by the side of the road

And be a friend to man.”

When I consider a life lived with this wholesome philosophy at its core, and what Foss was trying to tell us when he published his poem 124 years ago, I finally understand one of life’s little secrets.

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