Analysis of Poem "Out, Out -" by Robert Frost

Updated on November 30, 2018
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Andrew has a keen interest in all aspects of poetry and writes extensively on the subject. His poems are published online and in print.

Robert Frost
Robert Frost | Source

Robert Frost and A Summary of "Out, Out -"

"Out, Out -" is a single stanza poem set in an idyllic rural landscape between the states of New Hampshire and Vermont. In the distance are mountains, in the immediate foreground a noisy buzz saw. The scene is one of busy industry, workers sawing logs in the farmyard ready for the stove.

But tragedy isn't that far away. One of the workers, a young boy, has his hand severely injured by that ferocious saw blade. He loses blood rapidly and the shock kills him, despite the presence of a doctor.

It's a sorry tale of an early demise, one which Robert Frost knew all too well in his own family life. As a farmer and New England man he also knew of the case involving one Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald of Bethlehem, New Hampshire.

According to The Robert Frost Encyclopedia (Tuten, Zubizarreta) he met the Fitzgerald family on visits to Bethlehem in 1910, so would certainly have kept Raymond's untimely death in his poetic consciousness.

The poem appeared six years later in McClure's Magazine and subsequently in his book Mountain Interval.

"Out, Out -" is a poem that both intrigues and puzzles. For a start, the speaker seems both distant and close up; Frost created a narrative that seems objectively journalistic yet has a first person perspective in parts.

The poem, 34 lines long, has three distinct sections:

  • The first nine lines juxtapose buzz saw and mountain landscape. Here is a team hard at work, too busy cutting logs for winter to notice their surroundings.
  • Then lines 10 - 26 focus on the boy and the accident, the reader aware of the compassionate, personal voice of the speaker coming through as the awful details emerge.
  • Finally, lines 27 - 34 concentrate on the death of the boy and the reaction of the others, including family. They're survivors, and have life to be getting on with.

So in the end the boy's life meant really very little to the others, they who have to carry on the struggle for survival in what is a harsh New England environment. This echoes the words of Macbeth in Shakespeare's play when he suggests that life is like a brief candle, all too easily snuffed out.

  • To many, this ending of Frost's comes over as a bit callous, despite the earlier show of empathy in the poem for the boy to knock off work early, which might have saved his life.

When the poor unfortunate breathes his last it seems those around him immediately turn into selfish, unfeeling individuals, who have to complete their chores before even thinking of attending to the boy. His death seems to mean little to them.

  • Overall there is the feeling that they are responsible for his death; they are the adults who perhaps should have taken over his duties at the saw as the day wore on. Somewhat ironically, it's the sister who distracts him from the job when she offers 'Supper' and the saw, curiously, seems to leap onto the boy's hand, perhaps as a result of the mechanical contraptions and belts attached to it.

The reader can well imagine the gravity of such a situation - a remote farm, a severe injury, a tired young boy who soon realized his dilemma: lose a hand and become a burden on the family, lose too much blood and fall foul of the reaper.

Where Did Frost's Title "Out, Out -" Come From? Macbeth Hears of Lady Macbeth's Death.

From William Shakespeare's play Macbeth (Act 5, Scene 5, lines 17-28)

Macbeth:

She should have died hereafter;

There would have been a time for such a word.

— To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,

Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,

To the last syllable of recorded time;

And all our yesterdays have lighted fools

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more.

"Out, Out -"

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,
Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap—
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—
He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.
No one believed. They listened at his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

Analysis of "Out, Out -"

"Out, Out -" is a poem about the death of a young boy sawing logs for the stove in readiness for winter on a New Hampshire farm. The scene must have been so familiar to Robert Frost - a farm yard with a buzz saw, a team of workers hard at it against a backdrop of mountain peaks.

In those opening few lines the contrasts portrayed are clear. Noisy mechanical machine, silent majesty of the Vermont range. Close up focus versus distant blur. Industry against nature. Dust and labor versus sweet scent and romance.

  • These juxtaposed elements are what produce the early tension in the poem and similar energies resonate throughout. What the narrator/speaker attempts to do is hold on to, or find, the humanity beneath the surface as the scene progresses.
  • Frost also skilfully changes the syntax as the poem moves on, using caesurae (pauses through punctuation) and metric variation to enhance meaning and drama.

The first nine objective lines sketch the scene into which the personal voice of the speaker is heard for the first (and last) time, the tenth line, which runs on into the eleventh and twelfth through use of enjambment:

Call it a day, I wish they might have said

To please the boy by giving him the half hour

That a boy counts so much when saved from work.

The speaker's stance here is one of compassion and reason and contrasts strongly with the ending, where so much cold indifference to the plight of the boy is expressed.

A definite turning point of the poem occurs in line 14 when the sister announces 'Supper' which triggers a radical change in circumstance for the boy. Note the focus of the speaker during this time - it's as if the speaker was actually there to witness the saw as it 'leaped' out and cut into the boy's flesh.

There is astute use of caesura in these lines, end stops midway causing the reader to pause, a result of the work stopping when the saw struck and the shock no doubt set in.

The boy's 'rueful laugh' seems pitiful. You can picture him stepping away from the bloodied saw blade holding his near severed hand, seeking some kind of solace and solution. There is none to be found.

It's ironic that a sister should be at the heart of the accident, calling the workers for a meal and perhaps distracting the boy in the process. Life for a farming family back then must have been tough enough without a potentially fatal accident to cope with.

The boy knows. He's at that transitional point between child and man; not physically strong enough to withstand the shock but grown up enough to understand the dire circumstances he's in.

In a last desperate appeal to his sister he demands the doctor save his hand, somehow, not to cut it off so leaving him disabled for the rest of his working life.

  • In line 27 the final turning point is reached. The hand cannot be saved, stitched back.
  • The syntax is most unusual. Note that one word - So. The reader has to take a relatively deep pause as that little word sums up the gravitas of the situation.
  • This line also has only 9 syllables, making it a line of four feet, scanned two ways:
  • So. But / the hand / was gone / already.
  • So. But / the hand / was gone / already.
  • Some analysts suggest a separate foot for So. which means a five foot line.

There is a time gap between line 27 and 28, when the doctor gives the boy ether to numb the pain and render him unconscious. The reader can only assume that the boy lost too much blood whilst waiting for the doctor to arrive.

Soon the boy's heart stops beating, much to the disbelief of those present who we know are the doctor, the sister and the mystery 'watcher' who takes fright.

The final two lines are a challenge for the conscience of the reader. The cold stark reality of No more to build on there ...hits home, as if the speaker is saying, no more value in this dead boy.

Those gathered simply abandon the deceased, or at least, that's the impression given. They each go about their business, painted as selfish, glad that they were the ones alive able to face living without having to acknowledge for too long, or any time at all, the unfortunate victim.

What Is The Meter of "Out, Out -"

"Out, Out -" is a blank verse poem but, as is typical with Frost, it does not follow the traditional iambic pentameter daDUM daDUM pattern. Metrically it is a loose iambic poem, which Frost much preferred when writing blank verse.

As we will see, there are in fact only 8 lines* that are pure iambic pentameter, the rest being metrical variations which reflect changes in meaning and emotion. Pyrrhic, trochaic, spondaic plus anapaestic feet are also involved.

Let's have a close-up analysis line by line:

"Out, Out -"

The buzz / saw snarled / and rat / tled in / the yard *
And made / dust and / dropped stove /-length sticks / of wood,
Sweet-scent / ed stuff / when the breeze / drew a / cross it.
And from / there those / that lift / ed eyes / could count
Five moun / tain rang / es one / behind / the oth / er
Under / the sun / set far / into / Vermont.
And the / saw snarled / and rat / tled, snarled / and rattled,
As it / ran light, / or had / to bear / a load.
And noth / ing happ / ened: day / was all but done. *
Call it / a day, / I wish / they might / have said
To please / the boy / by giv / ing him / the half hour
That a / boy counts / so much / when saved / from work.
His sis / ter stood / beside / him in / her apron
To tell them ‘Supper.’ At the word, the saw, *
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant, *
Leaped out / at the / boy’s hand, / or seemed / to leap
He must / have given / the hand. / Howev / er it was,
Neither / refused / the mee / ting. But / the hand!
The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh, *
As he / swung to / ward them / holding / up the hand
Half in / appeal, / but half / as if / to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all— *
Since he / was old / enough / to know, / big boy
Doing / a man’s / work, though / a child / at heart
He saw / all spoiled. / ‘Don’t let / him cut / my hand off
The doc / tor, when / he comes. / Don’t let / him, sister!’
So. / But the / hand was / gone al / ready.
The doct / or put / him in / the dark / of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath. *
And then— / the watch / er at / his pulse / took fright.
No one / believed. / They list / ened at / his heart.
Little /—lessnoth / ing!—and / thatend / ed it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they *
Were not / the one / dead, turned / to their / affairs.

Iambic Pentameter Lines: 1,9,14,15,19,22,29 and 33.

  • Line 29: He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.

Pyrrhic and Spondaic lines: 2,4,5,7,8,12,16.

  • Line 16: Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap -

The double stress of the spondee adds energy, disrupts the familiar iambic rhythm, whilst the pyrrhic has no stressed syllables, creating a lull which is followed again by a second spondaic surge.

Lines With Feminine (unstressed syllable) endings: 3,5,7,11,13,17,20,25,26,28.

  • Line 28: The doctor put him in the dark of ether.

This line is iambic pentameter but has the extra unstressed syllable at the end, called a feminine ending, which makes the voice drop away, fade away.

Trochaic and Spondaic Lines: 6,10,18,21,23,24,27,30-32, 34.

  • Line 31: No one believed. They listened at his heart.

The trochee gives an initial stress... No one ...then the spondee is a double stress, They listened...again a strong emphasis, on both syllables.

What Are The Literary Devices in "Out, Out -"?

There are several literary devices at work within this poem:

Alliteration

When words are close together in a line and start with the same consonant they are alliterative. Frost used alliteration quite frequently. This can add texture and phonetic energy for the reader:

saw snarled...dust and dropped...stove-lengths sticks...Sweet-scented stuff..there those that...could count...saw snarled...half hour...when saved from work...sister stood...saws knew what supper...have given the hand. However...holding up the hand...Then the...big boy...saw all spoiled...there. And they, since they..turned to.

Assonance

This is repeated use of the same vowel sounds in words that are close together in a line. It compliments alliteration in some cases.

snarled/yard...Sweet-scented/breeze...Five/behind...Under the sunset...ran/had...His sister/him...tell them...have/hand...appeal/keep...old/know...his lips/with his...listened/his.

Caesura

A pause in a line usually created by punctuation but may happen naturally in longer lines. In Frost's poem there are quite a few caesurae, causing the reader to pause as they read, breaking rhythm and pace.

So look for lines 7,8,9.10,14,16-18,21-27,30-34.

Line 27: So. But the hand was gone already.

Line 32: Little-less-nothing! - and that ended it.

Enjambment

Where a line runs on into the next line without punctuation, maintaining the sense, reflecting momentum and building up ideas. Frost uses it to good effect in this poem in several lines:

Lines 1, 4,5,10,11,13,20,21,23, 33.

Personification

When an object or thing is given human characteristics, as in the first line and lines seven and sixteen:

The buzz saw snarled....And the saw snarled...Leaped out.

Repetition

Repeating certain words and phrases reinforces the meaning and strengthens sound. Look for it in lines 1 and 7 where the buzz saw snarled and rattled. Individual words such as boy, day, hand and the phrase 'Don't let him....' is a poignant reminder.

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Andrew Spacey

    Comments

    Submit a Comment

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      8 days ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      I'm an experimental dabbler. A hit and miss composer. What I love is to deconstruct poems like Frost's Out, Out and so learn how they put it all together. But in the end the poem is there to be read and enjoyed and hopefully understood. Sharing my research is important.

    • chef-de-jour profile imageAUTHOR

      Andrew Spacey 

      8 days ago from Near Huddersfield, West Yorkshire,UK

      Life as a farm worker in New England was tough back then. Frost knew the life intimately and gave us solid poems like Out, Out to preserve it for the future.

    • Alexis Wainwright profile image

      Alexis Wainwright 

      8 days ago from Bozeman, Montana

      Nice analysis and very well written. Very interesting to read about the literary devices as well. Are you a poet yourself?

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      8 days ago from Houston, Texas

      What a sad tale this Robert Frost poem portrays. This is my first time reading it. Your analysis of poetry is always enlightening.

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