Out, Out— by Robert Frost

‘Out, Out—’ by Robert Frost was first published in July of 1916 in McClure’s. It was later included in his collection, Mountain Interval, published that same year. ‘Out, Out—‘ was inspired by the true story of a young boy, Raymon Tracy Fitzgerald, who died in an accident at a young age. It is generally thought that the title is an allusion to the famous line in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “Out, out, brief candle!” Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player”. 

‘Out, Out—’ recreates a true-life tale, in which a boy loses his hand in an accident, the shock of which goes on to kill him – sympathy is the dominant tone of the poem. The poem begins with the speaker describing the setting. A young boy is outside cutting wood with a powerful industrial saw against the backdrop of a mountainscape. Partway through the text the saw jumps and cuts off the boy’s hand. He is taken to the doctor who gives him ether. Then, all of a sudden, he dies. 


Poetic Techniques in Out, Out— 

‘Out, Out—’ by Robert Frost is a single stanza poem made up of thirty-four lines. There is no single rhyme scheme or metrical pattern, although a few of the lines, distributed throughout the text, are in iambic pentameter. 

Frost also makes use of a number of other poetic techniques. These include juxtaposition, alliteration and enjambement. The first, juxtaposition, is a technique a poet makes use of when they place multiple ideas or images close together, enhancing the meaning for the reader.

 It is utilized in the first stanzas as nature and industry are contrasted against one another, alongside the dust and the “Sweet-scented” smell of the wood. Then later one, with the sudden transition between life and death. Frost utilizes it in the structure of the poem itself. The first two sections focus on the elements of the scene and the accident, during which the boy is alive.

Then, after the young boy dies, the poem ends abruptly, as though there is nothing more to write about. Life is texturally prioritized above death in order to make a larger statement about the nature of the real-life, historical incident. 

You can read the full poem here.


Alliteration and Enjambment

Alliteration occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “dust” and “dropped” in the second line and  “holding” and “hand” in line twenty. 

Another important technique that is commonly used in poetry is enjambment. This occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point.  It forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward in order to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. There are a number of examples within the poem, but a poignant example is in lines twenty-one and twenty-two. 


Analysis of Out, Out—

Lines 1-6

In the first stanza of ‘Out, Out—‘ the speaker begins by describing, through vibrant, sound-rich adjectives, the presence of a “buzz saw”. It is personified through its “snarl[ing]” like animals, and “rattl[ing]” as if out of control or is close to falling apart. Then it appears to move on its own. It makes “dust” and drops “stove-length sticks of wood”. From these first lines a reader can determine that the young boy who is operating the machine is cutting wood for the family’s stove. 

In the next four lines, Frost utilizes the reader’s senses in order to expand the scene. If one was present alongside the young man, they would be able to smell the “Sweet” smell of the wood. It is brought up and away from the wood by the “breeze”. Around the boy and his saw, if he lifted his eyes, there are “Five mountain ranges one behind the other”. Frost gets very specific in the sixth line, placing the scene in Virginia, United States.  


Lines 7-12 

In an immediate and shocking juxtaposition with the peaceful mountain scene, the speaker returns to the saw in the next lines of ‘Out, Out—’. Repetition is used to reiterate the snarling and rattling of the machine. It interrupts the landscape, reasserting its presence and its place as the main focus of the text. Frost’s speaker describes the way it moves back and forth between light and heavy loads of wood. It seems, at this point, as though it can handle the job that’s been set out for it. 

Throughout the first portion of the day, “nothing happened”. It was not until the end of the day, in which the boy’s attention started to drift. The speaker, knowing what happens next, says that he wishes “they might have said / To please the boy by giving him” some time off at the end of the day. But, unfortunately, that didn’t happen. 


Lines 13-18 

It is in the next section of ‘Out, Out—’ that the climax of the poem takes shape. The sister comes to stand beside her brother and tell him that its time to stop work and come in and have supper. As if reacting to the sister’s words, the saw jumps and cuts the boy’s hand off. Frost again utilizes personification to make to seem as though the saw is an animal acting through its own will. 

There is an interesting moment in lines seventeen and eighteen in which the speaker goes back and forth between the saw leaping at the hand, or the hand giving itself up to the saw. Either way, he determines it doesn’t matter. The meeting was accepted by both parties.


Lines 19-26 

Rather than cry out in pain or surprise, the boy lets out a “rueful laugh” when he saw the hand fall. He quickly turns towards the house and his family “holding up the hand”. Despite what seemed like an effort to keep “life from spilling” from his severed appendage, the hand was completely separated from his body. 

The boy sat, in his mind, somewhere between childhood and adulthood. He was “old enough to know that all was “spoiled”. Despite this, he exclaims to his sister, asking that when the doctor comes to restrict him from cutting off his hand. Perhaps he spoke in shock, or ignorance, but, as the twenty-seventh line states, the hand “was gone already”. 


Lines 27-34

When the doctor did come in the last lines of ‘Out, Out—’, he gave the boy “ether” as an anesthetic and the “watcher” who was in charge of monitoring the boy’s pulse “took fright”. All of a sudden the boy went from puffing out his lips “with his breath” to nothing. His heart stopped through a progression, with “Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.” All the build-up to this moment ceases and the child is dead. This is mirrored through the reactions of those around the boy. They weren’t dead, so they went back to “their affairs”. 

Frosts uses punctuation to good effect in this latter part of the poem.  The  dashes build suspense as do the short sentences, especially ‘Little-less-nothing!-and that ended it.’ Here, and in the previous line is a sense of panic, but once it is established that the boy has indeed child, the line ‘No more to build on there.’  seem almost callous.

Throughout the poem the Speaker has suggested that the boy’s parents are to blame for his untimely death, and this seems to be confirmed in the abrupt ending. It implies that the farmers and community do not have the luxury of time to stop and grieve the loss of this child, and simply move on. In one sense, he could be admiring their stoicism and commitment to their labour, however given earlier statements in the poem it is more likely that he feels that they are cold and indifferent. The dominant feeling is one of sympathy for the lost boy.


Structure and Form

This narrative poem is set in one long stanza, written in unrhymed iambic pentameter. In the absence of any formal rhyme scheme, some rhyme can still be identified in the repetition of the words ‘saw’, ‘hand’ and ‘boy’ which are emphasised throughout.

The title is taken from Macbeth’s soliloquy ‘Out out brief candle’ in which he ponders the brevity and pointlessness of life.


Historical Context

Out, Out is found in Frost’s anthology Mountain Interval, which was published in 1916. It is said that Frost wrote this poem in response to an account of a young boy’s death which was reported in a local newspaper in March 1901. Frost was often described as being a farmer-poet who could have been seen as an outsider in his rural community of Massachusetts. This poem contains some social commentary by Frost, who often had an uneasy relationship with local farmers, given that he could be seen as pretentious and scathing about their perceived lack of culture and creativity. Two such examples of criticism can be seen in this poem; the first being in line four,

And from there those that lifted eyes could count

Five mountain ranges one behind the other.

Here Frost seems to imply that he is one of the few in his community who takes in the beauty of the New England landscape. The second is in line 10, when he wistfully remarks:

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.

Here we can detect more criticism aimed at the boy’s parents or other farm hands, whose Puritanical zeal for work results in the child’s death.

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  • Avatar Estoy Listo says:

    Not so sure about the Puritanical zeal for work. Recall that the boy was cutting stove wood, fuel for cooking and heating: necessities.

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      That’s a very good point, it seems more like just taking care of essentials.

  • Avatar Guest says:

    what would be the mood and/or tone of this poem?

    • Lee-James Bovey Lee-James Bovey says:

      I would say the mood is dark. There is a hint of black comedy in here too.

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