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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483

Robert Frost comments on the brevity of life in his poem "Out, Out—" He puts forth the idea that life is an unpredictable journey that can be ended when we least expect it.

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The poem focuses on a boy who is using a buzz saw to cut wood for the stove. As he works, his sister calls him for supper. Just then, the saw "Leaped out at the boy's hand." He begs his sister not to let the doctor cut off his hand but to no avail. She cannot control what must happen, and his hand has already been damaged. Sadly, the boy dies soon after the doctor places him under anesthesia. The others "since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs" and life continues.

Frost's poem is an homage to a young man he knew who had a similar accident and passed away soon after. The title is an allusion to a scene in William Shakespeare's Macbeth in which the title character reflects on the meaning of life. As he nears the end of his life, Macbeth thinks about how short human existence really is. He considers how people think they have control over the pathway they take, but in the end, everyone ends up the same way. Death, like life, truly is not in our control. Perhaps the allusion is Frost's way of dealing with such a tragic event and reminding people to make the most of life since it can be taken from us unexpectedly. In addition, Frost's characters return to their normal routines after the tragedy, perhaps underscoring the simple message that life continues, no matter what happens. As Macbeth says, everyone is "a poor player" in the game of life and the "brief candle" of existence is extinguished quickly.

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Latest answer posted August 31, 2012, 4:17 pm (UTC)

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Frost's use of technique should be noted when reading this poem. He skillfully personifies the saw, making it the villain and the boy the hero. The saw "snarled," "rattled," "ran," and "leaped." From these descriptions, the reader immediately senses something is about to go wrong. It is easier for us to blame the saw if it is personified since an inanimate object cannot have free will and therefore cannot cause such destruction. So, Frost's personification allows us to blame the villain for hurting the innocent victim.

Then, Frost includes the line "He must have given the hand" which seems out of place in the middle of the poem. This line can be important in two ways. First, since the saw is a villain, this line might be the saw's defense. We quickly dismiss the idea because there is no reason for the boy to sacrifice his hand. Second, however, the line foreshadows the ending of the poem when the boy gives his life rather than live without his hand. He is so distraught, that "the watcher at his pulse took fright," and his heart gives out.

The Poem

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

Robert Frost’s “‘Out, Out—’” describes a farm accident that unexpectedly and irrationally costs a young boy his life. The narrator of the poem sets the scene, seemingly from an outsider’s perspective, reporting the incident with objectivity and restraint. Yet, as the narrative advances, underlying emotions and tensions surface as the persona builds to the poem’s conclusion: the seemingly senseless, abrupt ending of the boy’s life, followed by his family’s subsequent return to their daily routines.

The first nine lines of the poem set the scene: the “snarl” of the saw and the “sweet-scented” smell of the wood as it is cut into “stove-length sticks.” Beyond the farm, the late afternoon sun settles over “five mountain ranges” extending “far into Vermont.” It has been an ordinary day on an ordinary farm, despite the exceptional beauty of its location: “And nothing happened: day was all but done.” This section concludes with its foreboding note, its hint not just of nature’s majesty but also its fearful possibilities for disrupting everyday life.

In the next nine lines of the poem, both the narrator and the boy sawing the wood are introduced. So, too, is the narrator’s discomfort with the story he has to tell. The persona “wish[es]” that the boy’s family had given him “the half hour” he craved to be a boy after a full day of work. Instead, the boy has toiled until his sister announces “Supper”—the very moment when the accident occurs. The narrator is unsure just how the boy’s hand comes to be severed: whether the saw heard the word “supper,” too, and “leaped out,” or the boy did so, or both.

In the aftermath of the accident (the following eleven lines), the boy gives a “rueful laugh” as he “hold[s] up the hand,” beseeching help in disbelief, while at the same time trying to prevent his own “life from spilling.” Yet it is too late, as the boy suddenly realizes: “Then the boy saw all”; “He saw all spoiled.” Being old enough to understand the adult world and do adult work, “though a child at heart,” the boy knows how little value his life will have when he is missing a hand. What kind of farm work will he do? Of what use will he be? He begs, “‘Don’t let [the doctor] cut my hand off,’” but it is too late. His hand cannot be saved, and unexpectedly, it appears, neither can the boy himself: “And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.”

In the last four lines of the poem, readers are given the family’s reaction—first shock; then a realistic acceptance of death, “that ended it”; and, finally, a seeming callousness: “And they, since they/ Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Life on the farm must go on. Now that the boy is dead, there is “No more to build on there”; they return to their daily chores, building what they can and living their own lives. There seems nothing more to be said or done, and the poem concludes abruptly.

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 579

“‘Out, Out—’” is one of Frost’s mid-length narrative poems, written in blank verse to convey natural speech rhythms. The poet uses simple, everyday language, words such as “supper,” “buzz saw,” “apron,” and “big boy.” However, the natural flow is broken by hard caesuras (abrupt breaks) in almost half the lines; these increase in number toward the end of the poem, where they occur often early in a line, rather than in the middle where a pause is more natural (for example, in line 27: “So. But the hand was gone already.”). These breaks betray the emotionality underlying the narrator’s restrained reporting style, as do the three exclamation points dotting the poem. The hard caesura interruptions also correspond to the accident’s abrupt break in the day-to-day rhythms of farm routine and the boy’s foreshortened life.

Frost immerses the reader in the scene of the poem by drawing on all the senses. He creates the sound of the “buzz saw” through the refrain of strong action verbs, “snarled and rattled,” repeated three times in the first seven lines, and by using s, t, d, and z sounds early in the poem. He also re-creates for readers the “sweet-scented” smell of the shavings from the cut wood and the majestic view, as the sun sets over the five Vermont mountains that dwarf the farm below.

The narrator gives readers more than simple, realistic detail, however. Imaginative, fanciful commentary intrudes on the reporter’s objectivity. The saw, personified through the words “As if to prove saws knew what supper meant,” suddenly comes to life; it “seemed to leap” at the boy’s hand. Here the speaker suggests the possibility of an inanimate object’s becoming animate, of the tool’s possibly human, and certainly unpredictable and destructive, qualities. The narrator’s imagination allows for the possibility of such supernatural happenings, as it also enables him to empathize with the boy.

The speaker understands how reluctant the boy has been to take on adult responsibilities when he would rather have been playing. “I wish,” the narrator admits, the boy’s family might have been more sympathetic and allowed him to quit work earlier. Instead, it is the narrator who realizes the boy is still “a child at heart,” not “they,” his family, who should have been more understanding of his needs. Thus, tension is created between the narrator/outsider who reports the accident and the family insiders who turn away from it, despite their part in its occurrence.

The title underscores this narrative tension. It is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy at the end of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth (pr. 1606), when his words “Out, out, brief candle!” express profound grief over the abrupt death by suicide of Lady Macbeth. Such an overt expression of grief is missing here on the part of the boy’s family, however, though not on the part of the poet who has made Macbeth’s anguished cry his title. The words also suggest Lady Macbeth’s torment before her suicide, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say!” as she vainly tries to wash away the blood of murder from her hands. So, too, as the boy’s relatives turn away to resume their chores, they may find themselves unable to wash his blood from their hands. They may only appear to have washed away their sense of responsibility (however unintentional) for his death and their grief over his loss through their traditional New England stoicism and reticence.


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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 136

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