Analysis of Robert Frost's "Out, Out-"

Poetry Analysis: ‘Out, Out-‘ by Robert Frost

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).

Interpretation

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

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162 thoughts on “Poetry Analysis: ‘Out, Out-‘ by Robert Frost

  1. Marissa Bergen

    Oh, goodness! Right now I am reading a book on trying to write metrical poetry so as soon as I saw ‘analyzing poetry’ I thought ‘yikes!!’ Nevertheless, a fascinating poem and topic…one that I had never heard of. And so glad to see it was written in free form!!!

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  2. Janine Huldie

    The Road Not Taken is sti one of my favorites by Frost and didn’t know this one believe it or not, but still loved reading about it and your interpretation today. Thanks Christy!! 🙂

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  3. Elouise

    A new poem for me. A biting commentary–if not on the people who get on with life in the poem, then on the context that results in young lives being snuffed out in a heartbeat and the aching reality of needing to get on with ‘life.’ Such as it is. So many current and recent realities jump to mind. Thanks for taking us through this poem that almost sounds like an elegy or eulogy.
    Elouise

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Elouise, that’s so true about the sad reality having been that a child’s life being taken was something that became an event people were ‘accustomed’ to (if that’s the right word). I appreciate that YOU appreciated the depth of Frost’s work as I tried to show it. Thank you ❤

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  4. simon7banks

    I find the criticism of the ending hard to understand. The poem shows compassion. It’s only honest to admit that a whole lot of people witnesses to or affected by a death will still have their affairs to see to, work to go to, people they care for to care for. The doctor will go to another case. Yes, at the time of the First World War or in the Middle Ages of Europe and the Arab world, death was more familiar: for example, in the Middle Ages, most women of thirty or more would have lost a child. But even today we can expect that only a handful of people will be so intimately affected by a death, so emotionally affected, that they don’t go on with their other affairs. Even people very deeply affected may find it easiest to immerse themselves in work.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      And THAT’s why I like it so much when you stop by here, Simon. You always bring a new way for me to look at things. Great to have your added commentary here for us to look at. Either way, it’s sad that a child’s life was taken in this way. There’s rumour that Frost wrote the poem based on an incident he saw happen with his neighbour’s child although I couldn’t find if that was truth or just a rumour.

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  5. Pingback: ►Greek Mythology: “Poseidon, The God of Sea”.- | La Audacia de Aquiles

  6. "A Curious Mind"

    One of my most favorite poets. .. 😉
    You shouldn’t have told me not to read your last post, it made me all the more.
    . . Excellent interpretation.

    BILL

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  7. Debbie

    Well, gee, I can see how I would’ve blocked this one from my memory — how brutal! As a novelist, I regularly “kill” off characters, but I try to spare the wee ones! Mr. Frost had no such compunction, obviously. Well analyzed — and yes, cool that you’re in Canada and she’s in Argentina, yet technology permits collaboration!

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Debbie, I heard that he created the poem based on an incident at a neighbour’s house, about that neighbour’s son. I’m not sure if that’s true or not though so I didn’t include it in the post. When the characters in books I’m reading die it throws me off for sure, and makes me wonder what it signifies in the plot.

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  8. Aquileana

    Christy!. Your analysis is far more deeper than my vague thoughts on the poem were.
    You highlight all the major points and meanings within Frost’s verses.

    You even speak about the poetic devices such as the “s” alliteration and the personifications regarding thebuzz saw!.

    Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it. (Out-out verse 3).

    “And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled” (Out-out verse 7).

    Also when the doctor arrives and how the expression Dark of ether gives us reader a signal of the tragic upcoming ending!…

    You are right regarding Life and how a hundred years ago the perception of death was totally differnet as people seemed to be more used to it (even more in a context of war).
    The video you added on Macbeth stands out!. Very poignant!:

    “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. It is a tale
    Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
    Signifying nothing”

    (Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, verses 23–28)

    The ending is so sad and makes me think that those peasants had to keep it up just to struggle… They couldn’t stop to grieve the dead boy, even if he was their son.
    I think that there are two verses in which Frost let us know that probably the parents were too busy in order to raise their eyes to appreciate the beauties of the surrounding landscapes:

    “And from there those that lifted eyes could count
    Five mountain ranges one behind the other
    Under the sunset far into Vermont”.
    (Out-out verses 4/6)

    I think these verses as we have already discussed anticipat the resignation that would be the main feature in the last two verses:

    “No more to build on there. And they, since they
    Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs”~
    (Out-out last two verses)

    Christy I appreciate that you mentioned our discussion regarding this poem… I found it deep and special as you are my friend and I love your poetry. I linked back to my blog… Not sure in the appropiate way. I’d love you to give me further suggestions as I already changed a few things.. Please let me know!
    All my best wishes, B2. Aquileana 😀

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Thanks for adding those points here, Aquileana! Now we certainly have covered every point of the poem. I will be over to your post to see what you have changed then as I didn’t realize that had happened. Thank you, Christy, B1 🙂

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  9. vivachange77

    Good analysis. I like Frost’s poetry. I like your going into the words that signal future events in the poem to warn readers. About “Out, out”‘s being from Macbeth – I only remember “Out, out damned spot” Glad to learn more. I’ve long thought that death is irrefutable, ever since my mother died when I was thirty-five. It was a point in my life that just WAS and moving on was the only alternative as the mother of three young sons.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Yes, out out about the spot – that’s a keeper of a line! I’m sorry to hear about your mother’s passing. It makes me happy though to know you have 3 sons and family is all around you (and I’m part of your virtual family!) xx

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  10. Poetsmith

    An interesting analysis of Robert Frost’s poem “Out, Out” This tragic event does show the brevity of life as even the doctor could not save the boy … I have not read this one before. The good and evil in relationships are often portrayed in Shakespearean plays. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this poem, Christy. 🙂

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  11. Carrie Rubin

    I admire those of you who interpret poetry. I always feel a bit too left-brained for that. Very interesting to read your thoughts on this poem, though I keep thinking of the poor boy and his family. 😦 (Guess there’s some right brain in me, after all…)

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  12. Andrea Stephenson

    I love ‘snowy evening’ – one of my favourite poems, but don’t know many others by Frost. This is a tragic poem – the way the trepidation builds! And that last line. Thanks for this Christy, for helping me discover and understand a new poem.

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  13. BroadBlogs

    Interesting analysis. Having read it I can see why the palm is more popular. It’s deep and important, but probably so gruesome and scary that most people wouldn’t want to deal with it. At the very least, it makes me want to drive better.

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  14. Swetank

    I will say the colloboration went fantastically. Loved it totally .. ! As well as Robert was already one of my favourity nobel person. 🙂 Learned many things.. 🙂

    Be Bettr, Stay Bettr! 😀
    Swetank.

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  15. dilip

    I thank you Christy for this brilliant analysis. It inspired me to read the entire poem – tragic, and poignant yet fascinating. The words ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—
    The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’ touch one’s soul.

    Kind regards!

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Dilip, how nice you took time to go through the analysis here with me. It’s a rewarding process I find to really look under the top layer of a poem and muse about what the poet was thinking and the emotions of it all. It really is a tragic, intense poem. Here’s to being safe, my friend!

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  16. Sherri

    What a brilliant post Christie about a poem I know nothing about but am now fascinated by. Your analysis is wonderfully descriptive, thank you so much for sharing this with us. And yes, I agree, Skype is great, I speak through it regularly with my best friend in California 🙂 xx

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  17. Mike

    A very competent analysis that provides helpful insight to a Frost Luddite like me, so thank you Christy. What’s annoying me now is my ignorance of the significance of the S alliteration and I’m off on a search for examples. What a discovery! A real literary nugget! So thanks again teacher 🙂

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  18. cav12

    I’ve read a number of Robert Frost’s poems while at school but not ‘Out, out-‘
    Tragic poem yet a very poignant expression on how life is fragile. Great analysis. Am appreciating poetry more since following your blog 😀

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  19. Cyan Ryan

    Wonderful interpretation Christy and Aquileana! Reminded me of “Bleeding Out” by Imagine Dragons.

    I had a dream last September, where I was Robert Frost, and I wrote his poem the “Mending Wall”, which is all one stanza.

    In the dream though, I secretly separated it neatly into 7 stanzas, alternating the first 6 stanzas with 4 and 7 line stanzas, each ending with something referring to a wall, intending for the gap between stanzas to be a wall, and the last stanza, the 7th, being 12 lines, which is how many lines you would get if you add 4 and 7, and wrote another line in-between them in place of the gap.

    The 12 line stanza talked about an elf that breaks down walls, which from the first stanza, can be gleaned is Jack Frost. In the dream, it was a secret only I knew, sharing it as one stanza to represent Jack Frost breaking down all the walls in my poem, or in other words, in the poem, when I subtly referenced Jack Frost, I was hinting at myself, Robert Frost, breaking down the walls. Sharing it as a single stanza, was a further representation of me breaking down the walls of tradition.

    I’m surprised the interpretations of “The Mending Wall” on shmoop and sparknotes didn’t get this, as they touched on so many things, that to me, sound like it should of been grasped. I mean, Frost didn’t usually write in free verse like that, for example, and in the poem, the speaker seemed very pro-breaking-down-of-walls, and the elf sounded like a scape-goat…

    A very strange dream! Many of mine are, though I do not remember many of them these days.

    Robert Frost is such a great writer, it’s a shame he’s sometimes written off because of his two popular school textbook poems, when much of his poetry, in my opinion, is much better than his “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.”

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Hi Ry, I don’t recall ever having a dream that I was a poet other than myself 🙂 Mind you, Robert Frost would be a great choice, Or Maya Angelou. Now you have me thinking about dreams and the many interpretations of them, as well as of poems. It’s human nature to dissect the world into smaller pieces to better understand them, as you did in your poem inside the dream. I would say I remember a few dreams but not most of them. I am glad you enjoyed the project here and I was happy to partner with Aquileana! I had read that you were going to privatize your site but am not sure if you did… I will head over today to check it out!

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      1. Cyan Ryan

        I did privatize it, but it was short-lived. Some stuff was going on that I wanted to deal with by withdrawing from WordPress, but I realized I didn’t want to give up my freedom to blog openly as a way to deal with what was going on.

        I seem to have seasons where I remember my dreams, and seasons where they slip away. Last night I had two dreams about wanting to move to another apartment in a complex in the town I used to live in. Definitely don’t want to move back there, so it was sort of confusing. Dreams are weird, sometimes they make sense, sometimes they just seem random!

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  20. D.G.Kaye

    What a wonderful collaboration from two of my favourite girls and writers. The interpretation of the poem was very succinct with the ominous phrasing and story, sad that it almost sounded as though “Oh well, another one bites the dust, onward and upward.” Great job girls! xo

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  21. yprior1

    I have been wanting to come back to this post for a while now – and I finally was able to – and two thumbs up – well done C! ❤ – and today I was able to listen to the Ethan Hawke snippet – so nice….

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  22. Michael

    Wow.

    Thanks for this Christy. I noticed my error on the title quote before I came in here so I take credit for noticing it myself. 🙂 But I see that you were gracious enough not to point out my error first.

    I remembered now reading this Frost work many years ago, The appreciation of both tragedy and pragmatism I illustrate some in my description of the death of Ruth in my second installment of The Journals of Samuel. Deep and traumatic sensations happen with the loss of loved ones, but life (fortunately or unfortunately) goes on.

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Thank you Michael for taking time in your weekend to visit here and appreciate the interpretation of a lesser-known work of Frost. It’s fine about the title quote ‘oops’ earlier as you were ‘close’ to the mark 🙂 Yes, the loss of loved ones is difficult, as is finding the strength to move forward afterward. I think that we do best when we keep them within our hearts.

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  23. Heartafire

    Hi christy a wonderful post, I admire your interpretive skills ( envy them too 🙂 Robert frost work is one of the best and this poem you reference one of his most intriguing. I am on my iPhone today as I am traveling hopefully my comment makes sense thanks south hugs to you

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Hi sweetie! Yes, your comment makes sense and so nice of you to make time to read this one! Frost is amazing and so glad to read we share that admiration. Mind you, YOU are an amazing poet too! HUGS and be safe in your travels ♥

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  24. mahinur

    Thnxristy
    ……i have enjoyed reading dis …..and I need it fr my homework….thnx again and best of luck for the future… 😀

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  25. Kev

    Excellent analysis… not one of the most popular of his poems today due to its nature, but you touched on that perfectly when you stated that death was more common place back then, and it was probably viewed as more of a warning to take care while working as well. 🙂

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  26. Aquileana

    I was thinking that Frost´s poems, “Out, Out” and “Nothing Gold can stay” seem to have the theme in common. Life is shown as something fleeting, ephemeral and unavoidably perishable.
    However, the first one is far more tragic with sad consequences… whilst the second one is a sort of harmless philosophical musing, or statement.
    Sending love for your day, dear Chris. Aquileana 🙂

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    1. Christy Birmingham Post author

      Ohhh my what analysis you have here – and I see exactly what you mean! Life is short and both poems are quite to the point about that. Well done, Aqui, in seeing that. Thanks for sharing the post on Twitter. So excited about our next collaboration. Hopefully soon we will both have time to continue with it (work calls first, of course, but poetry is wonderful to read and analyze with friends!)

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      1. Aquileana

        -Nothing lasts forever, but we can make those transitory moments truly count!….I agree, both poems seem to highlight the same theme. We are synchronized in the same direction with this project!. Sending love for your week,Chris! Aquileana 🙂

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        1. Christy B Post author

          Yes, Aqui, yes! We are two stars shining in our poetry projects today 🙂 Thanks for the great notes about the Frost poem and I’m working on the draft now. I am going to link to this Out, Out anlysis at the end of the new post, as you suggest xo

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  27. Pingback: Analysis of the Poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ by Robert Frost | Poetic Parfait

  28. Pingback: Analysis of the Poem ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ by Robert Frost | Poetic Parfait

  29. Phil Ryan

    To my shame I didn’t know who Robert Frost was until yesterday so big thanks Christy for the introduction. Brilliant opening line and excellent appraisal again. Boys doing men’s work in 1916 was certainly young soldiers trying to sort out the mess created by older men and they had no choice but to carry on despite their colleagues being slain like wood in a saw. Was this a warning not to get involved in the Great War or a call to arms to put a horse in the race to make people take notice. Either way highly interesting, thanks Christy.

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  30. Phil Ryan

    Oh thanks, Christy that’s a lovely thing to say. I’ll find a quiet time to read all of the link and to read up on Robert Frost too. Who’d have thought I’d have re-energising powers! Happy to help 🙂

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    1. Phil Ryan

      From the little I’ve read so far I’m in no doubt this is a metaphor about The Great War. He came over to England in 1912 so experienced the build up and made friends with men who went to fight, and die. That he was born in 1874 and would have experienced veterans of the American Civil War at close quarters as he grew up and losing loved ones, father and son, may have given him empathy rather than bitterness, as premature death can sometimes do.
      The Road Not Taken also has the war sitting quietly at it’s side. The fork in the road – to fight or not. I could go… If you post the poem on your site I’m sure there will be an excellent response and discussion. Maybe not over Christmas though, need to keep the mood light 🙂 Have a good one!

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      1. Christy B Post author

        Ohhhh how wonderful to see you enjoying the poems of Robert Frost, even offering up your analysis 🙂 How happy that all makes me! Yes, his poems can be so profound and, well, talk of the destruction of war is not best for the holidays, as you say. Merry Christmas, Phil!

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