Compare and contrast Robert Frost’s "Out, Out—" and W. H. Auden’s "Musée des Beaux Arts."

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An analysis of Robert Frost’s “Out, Out—" must begin with the literary device of allusion. Allusion is a vague reference an author makes to another work in order to reaffirm an emotion or idea. In Frost’s poem, the title is an obvious reference to Shakespeare’s Macbeth: in act 5 of the play, the tragic hero is told of his wife’s death, and he utters the phrase, “Out, out, brief candle!” Frost alludes to the emotion Macbeth feels when he realizes life is short and uncertain.

In a single stanza, “Out, Out—” tells the tragic tale of a young boy who loses his life after severing a hand in a buzz saw accident. Advancing the theme of life and death, Frost foreshadows an impending tragedy. The omniscient narrator says,

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 poet also paints a grim picture of what can go wrong when human beings and machines share a relationship. The combination of man and machine can bring about an unexpected death, which reinforces Frost’s theme of the brevity and uncertainty of life.

Another literary device utilized by Frost is personification, which is a figure of speech giving human attributes to non-humans or inanimate objects. Describing the buzz saw, the narrator states:

And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,

As it ran light, or had to bear a load.

In another example, the narrator says:

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...

Of great significance to this poem is the reaction of the adults following the boy’s death. They appear to display little emotion at the loss, as if his life meant very little. Whereas Frost seemed sympathetic to the boy early in the poem by suggesting it might have been better for him to quit work early, he paints a scene as cold as a New England winter when “they,” without specificity, return to their daily tasks. This is a comment on human nature.

In the two-stanza poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” W.H. Auden also employs the literary device of allusion. The poem centers on the theme of tragedy and human suffering, which, like life itself, appears to be uncertain. To advance his message, the poet alludes to the paintings of great artists of the past:

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting.

Auden alludes to one painting in particular: “The Fall of Icarus” by Pieter Brueghel. In the painting, Icarus, the son of Daedalus, falls into the sea when he flies too close to the sun, which melts the wax binding his wings. He uses the painting to evoke the same emotion over the loss of Icarus that he feels human beings should have for the suffering of others. In the second stanza of the poem, Auden describes the apathy people display when faced with the suffering of others. This is a similar theme to that which appears in Frost’s “Out, Out—.” In contrast to Frost, Auden does not use personification as a literary device, but like Frost, his message about how self-centered people seem to find the suffering of others irrelevant is powerful.

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