Hello and welcome to poetry analysis with Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out-” and I. Pull up a chair and I will pour the tea shortly. Let’s let it brew a few minutes, shall we?
“Out, Out-” was published by poet Robert Frost in 1916. Many of you are likely most familiar with his poems “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Today I hope to share a bit about what I think is fascinating about this third poem of the many works by the legendary American writer.
Summary of “Out, Out-“
So, what is the poem “Out, Out-” about? (Try saying that three times fast). It features the story of a boy who accidentally cuts off his own hand with a buzz saw while doing yard work. While a doctor comes to help it is too late to save the hand, and the boy bleeds to death. The ending of the poem pragmatically explains that life continues on, and the others who are not dead must return to work (more on the harshness of that part in the interpretation section below).
This poem by Robert Frost has an overarching theme of how short and fragile life is in composition. The tragedy of the boy in “Out, Out-” reveals how life can change instantly; it quickly can alter and, yes, even can end without warning.
Within the poem, Frost uses describes the buzz saw with human characteristics such as “snarling.” The first line reads:
“The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard”
These human qualities become ironic when, later in the poem, the boy’s sister calls out that it is supper time, and Frost explains the buzz saw does not know what “supper” is. This is the point where tragically the youth’s hand is cut off. And, it is a tragedy in the view of the poet, as Frosts voice is compassionate toward the boy, as shown here:
“Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy…”
Frost is sympathetic toward him, and the writer’s tone is one of blame toward the bystander as the one to blame for the tragedy, rather than blaming the boy. The boy is viewed as an innocent child.
Throughout the poem, there is foreshadowing of the dark event to come. For example, there are several words that start with “S” used in the poem, which is a traditional form of alliteration to convey a negative situation. As well, when the doctor later comes to help, his visit is described with the phrase “dark of ether,” which is warning the reader that the boy is soon to die. In addition, note the style of the poem is free form, without any rhyme scheme and composed of lines that vary in length. The unpredictability of the structure is symbolic of the unpredictability of the boy in the field and that there is something unexpected going to happen in the poem. The free form also symbolizes how uncertain life is and how fast it can change.
As for the ending of Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out-” likely seems to readers today to be cruel:
“…And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.”
However, before judging too quickly the seemingly harsh view of getting on with life right after the boy died, it’s important to remember the period when this poem was written. Death was likely more commonplace; it was written in the midst of World War I. So, death was accepted and unfortunately likely a regular occurrence for people. They had to accept it and move on with continuing to work. In other words, they were used to it, at least on some level. Today this view is perhaps more difficult to understand and considered to be cruel.
What about the Title?
Are you wondering what the title of “Out, Out-” refers to? That phrase is never mentioned in the poem itself. Robert Frost’s title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth. In Act 5 Scene 5 of the famous play, you will find the quote,
“Out out, brief candle”
Here is a video showing the line, as read by actor Ethan Hawke:
Shakespeare’s Macbeth: Macbeth – “Out brief candle”
Backstory: How the Poetry Analysis of “Out, Out-” Came to Be
How did this analysis come to be written? The answer is… from a Skype conversation that I had with Aquileana of La Audacia De Aquiles. We had a Skype chat (hello I’m in Canada and she is in Argentina, how cool is that?!) as we do regularly (yes!) and we had planned to discuss this particular poem. Why? Why not? We both love poetry and agreed it would be a fun addition to our usual chats. As Aquileana helped me with the poetry analysis, with the technology of Skype helping us, I want to say “thank you” to her!
And to you, the reader, I say not be “out” but “see you soon and thanks for taking time to read this post!”
©2015 Christy Birmingham