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Out, Out

The buzz saw snarls and rattles in Robert Frost's 'Out, Out' (1916), a poem that captures the suddenness and brutality of death. Against the backdrop of a quiet New England landscape, a young boy's life is cut short in an instant, leaving the community to grapple with the fragility of existence. Frost's masterful use of imagery and symbolism creates a sense of foreboding and inevitability, drawing readers into the tragedy that unfolds on the page.

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The buzz saw snarls and rattles in Robert Frost's 'Out, Out' (1916), a poem that captures the suddenness and brutality of death. Against the backdrop of a quiet New England landscape, a young boy's life is cut short in an instant, leaving the community to grapple with the fragility of existence. Frost's masterful use of imagery and symbolism creates a sense of foreboding and inevitability, drawing readers into the tragedy that unfolds on the page.

'Out, Out' Summary and Analysis
Date Published1916
AuthorRobert Frost
Form / StyleNarrative poem
Rhyme SchemeUnrhymed
Poetic DevicesAlliteration, personification, enjambment, juxtaposition
Frequently noted imagery Technology, nature, family
ToneObjective, sombre
ThemesLife and death, technology, fragility of life.
SummaryThe poem tells the story of a young boy who is working with a buzz saw when his hand gets caught in the blade and he dies.
Analysis
  • 'Out, Out' primarily explores the nature of life and death and the role that technology plays for mankind.
  • The buzz saw represents both the boy's innocence and his vulnerability, while the sunset serves as a metaphor for the boy's life coming to an end.
  • The poem's structure, with its irregular rhyme scheme and uneven meter, echoes the sense of unpredictability and chaos that surrounds the boy's death.

'Out, Out': contexts

Robert Lee Frost is one the most famous American poets of the 20th century. His poetry dives deep into the perennial questions of life in a palatable form for the common reader and poetry enthusiasts. A key element of his writing that made his work universally accessible is his vivid descriptions of the natural world. His poem 'Out, Out' (1916) presents a great example of this.

'Out, Out' was published in Frost’s third poetry collection titled Mountain Interval (1916). Robert Frost took the title from the famous Shakespearean tragedy Macbeth (1623). In the play, the character Macbeth hears about the death of Lady Macbeth and responds by saying:

The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!

Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player

In these lines, Shakespeare comments on the fragility of life, comparing it to a candle that can so easily be blown out. Frost uses this allusion to Shakespeare since the main theme of his poem is death and so this quote from Macbeth is particularly relevant.

What do you think the 'walking shadow' means in this context?

Out Out, a single white candle lit against a black background, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The image of a single candle occurs in the poem 'Out, Out' as an allusion to Macbeth.

'Out, Out': historical context

An interesting fact about 'Out, Out' is that it was actually based on a real-life experience from Robert Frost’s life. The farm boy who dies in the poem was Frost’s neighbour in New Hampshire.1 The boy’s name was Raymond Fitzgerald, and he died as a result of an accident in a sawing machine that badly hurt his hand. A physician attempted to treat Raymond, but he died quite quickly from the shock and loss of blood.

Another historically significant fact is that the poem was published around the start of World War I. It’s well recorded that this was among the darkest and most tragic times in recent human history. The development of technology meant that wars had become deadlier, which resulted in astonishingly high death counts across the globe. Frost highlights the deadly potential of technology in the form of the buzz saw, and also how quickly people move on after a person has died.

Could 'Out, Out' be commenting on the fleetingness of life as a response to the high death count from WWI?

'Out, Out': poem analysis

Read through the poem below and start to think about the analysis behind it. What is the meter, and what sort of imagery do you note?

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard

And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,

Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.

And from there those that lifted eyes could count

Five mountain ranges one behind the other

Under the sunset far into Vermont.

And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,

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

And nothing happened: day was all but done.

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.

His sister stood beside him in her apron

To tell them ‘Supper.’ 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—

He must have given the hand. However it was,

Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!

The boy’s first outcry was a rueful laugh,

As he swung toward them holding up the hand

Half in appeal, but half as if to keep

The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all—

Since he was old enough to know, big boy

Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart—

He saw all spoiled. ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off—

The doctor, when he comes. Don’t let him, sister!’

So. But the hand was gone already.

The doctor put him in the dark of ether.

He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.

And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright.

No one believed. They listened at his heart.

Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.

No more to build on there. And they, since they

Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

'Out, Out': summary

The start of the poem introduces the ‘buzz saw’, which is given quite negative connotations that almost resemble an aggressive dog with the phrase ‘snarled and rattled’. The focus then shifts to the beautiful scenery in Vermont, Frost paints the picture of ‘five mountain ranges’ in front of the ‘sunset’.

The young boy working at the saw is looking forward to ending the day's work, and soon his sister approaches to announce that it is supper time. Hearing the good news, the boy is ready to leave, but his hand ‘leaps' towards the saw and makes contact with it. Most likely in shock, the boy's first response is a ‘rueful laugh’, but he quickly realises the severity of his situation. A doctor arrives shortly after and fails in his attempt to save him. The boy's pulse gradually becomes weaker, until it finally comes to a stop.

The poem ends with everyone returning to their work, seemingly unfazed by the tragic event that just took place.

Out Out, an illustrated image of a mountain range during sunset, StudySmarterFig. 2 - The sunset behind a mountain range is part of the rural scenery of Vermont that Frost includes in the poem.

'Out, Out': form

In 'Out, Out', Frost has decided to choose the unusual approach of using a single stanza of 34 lines written in free verse.

Free verse is a form a poetry without a regular rhyme scheme or a particular rhythm.

Free verse has no set rhyme scheme or meter. However, there are some sections in 'Out, Out' that are written in iambic pentameter.

The use of free verse gives the poem a conversational feel that is almost anti-poetic. This technique makes the climax, which appears halfway through the poem, a real shock for the reader. Frost transitions from describing the beautiful natural scenery in Vermont to the boy’s tragic accident with no warning. This technique may be alluding to death and how it creeps up so unexpectedly.

Frost’s exclusion of any sort of rhyme scheme in the poem gives the poem a sober element that feels appropriate for the topic. 'Out, Out' gives an objective perspective on death and exposes the bitter reality to the reader of how death gives no warnings.

'Out, Out': analysis

Below is an analysis of the different sections of the poem 'Out, Out'.

Lines 1-9

In the first part of the poem, Frost expertly juxtaposes the industrial buzz saw and the beautiful mountainous scenery.

Frost creates a rather harsh and unsympathetic persona - through the use of personification - for the buzz saw, he repeats the phrase ‘snarled and rattled’ three times within a few lines. Frost also makes extensive use of onomatopoeia in his word choices when describing the buzz saw, including words such as ‘buzz’, ‘rattled’, and ‘snarled’. The buzz saw is rugged and isn’t phased by the load upon it: it ‘ran light’ and ‘nothing happened.

The description of the natural scenery is serene, in contrast to the buzz saw. The sunset is taking place behind ‘five mountain ranges one behind the other’. Frost’s use of the sunset represents the end of the day, which may be an allusion to the end of the boy’s life that takes place shortly after. On the other hand, Frost may have included the sunset for the purpose of beautifying the poem.

Lines 10-26

The middle section of 'Out, Out' details the boy’s accident with the saw and his initial reaction. The speaker also conveys a more personal tone in this section.

Frost describes the boy as ‘Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart’. We get an impression of the boy's youthful demeanour, as he’s eager to get off from work for even a ‘half hour’. Most boys would love to spend their time playing games with their friends, but the situation demands the boy support his family, a task he takes responsibility for despite his age.

The accident takes place after the boy responds to his sister when she announces that supper’ is ready. Frost makes the buzz saw seem like it’s operating by its own agency, saying that it ‘Leaped out at the boy’s hand’. In the end, the accident is put down to fate, since ‘Neither refused the meeting’.

The boy’s reaction to getting his hand severed is a rueful laugh’, giving the impression that he’s in a state of disbelief and the only response he is capable of is to laugh it off despite the seriousness of the injury. Then with a false sense of hope and defiance, the boy tells them not to ‘cut my hand off’, but in reality, his hand ‘was gone already’.

Lines 27-34

In the final part of the poem, the boy tragically dies, most likely from excessive blood loss combined with shock. Frost emphasises the boy's heartbeat slowing with the words 'Little - less - nothing!' for dramatic effect. Note the punctuation here, does this add to the sudden shock of the boy's death?

The poem's narrator describes the family moving away to continue their lives, for 'they were not the one dead' which signifies that time moves on regardless.

The poem ends with what appears to be a rather cold and heartless response from the family in light of the boy’s death. Since they survived, they had nothing else to do but to return ‘to their affairs’. The family's reaction could be considered stoic. The harsh manual labour that farmers carry out to earn a living doesn’t give them enough time to grieve, so the only option they have is to carry on.

'Out, Out': literary devices

The main literary devices used in 'Out, Out' are alliteration, allusion, personification, enjambment, and symbolism.

Alliteration

Frost employs the use of alliteration in certain lines of this poem to enhance the beauty of the subject or add emphasis to the line.

He describes the sawdust that the saw emits as Sweet-scented stuff’, the use of three ‘s’ sounds here makes a good example of sibilance in use. The operation of the buzz saw made ‘dust and dropped’ wood.

Personification

Frost uses personification as a method to give the buzz saw an aggressive and somewhat animalistic persona. The repetition of the phrase ‘snarled and rattled’ really drives home the impression that the buzz saw is dangerous. Overall this poem creates quite a strong anti-technology sentiment.

Juxtaposition

Juxtaposition is an overarching technique used throughout 'Out, Out.'

Frost first makes use of it in the first section of the poem, when he describes the contrasting qualities of nature versus an industrial machine.

Another juxtaposition can be observed between the first and second half of the poem. The mood of the poem in the first half is relaxed and maybe even boring, life seems to be going as normal. However, in the second half, the mood instantly changes when the boy’s hand makes contact with the saw and chaos ensues.

Enjambment

Enjambment is when a line is ended before its natural stopping point. Frost makes use of this technique to enhance the tension during serious parts of the poem.

This technique can be seen in use in line 21. Just after having his hand severed, the narrator describes the moment that the boy saw the extent of the damage, since he was old enough to know’.

Symbol

At the start of the poem, Frost describes the sunset behind the mountains. This could be seen as a symbol that foreshadows the boy’s forthcoming death.

Speaker

Throughout the majority of the poem, the speaker maintains a detached perspective, and the narration is objective for the most part. However, the speaker emerges from the screen of objectivity to voice an opinion about the situation.

Just before the tragic incident, the speaker expresses ‘I wish they might have said’ to ‘Call it a day’. Here the speaker reveals foreknowledge of the event and his wish that destiny would have been more favourable to the young boy.

'Out, Out': themes

The poem explores themes of mortality, the fragility of life, technology, and the suddenness of death.

Death

'Out, Out' is a poem that reveals the sudden and unexpected nature of death. The climax of the poem happens with the boy’s fatal accident, but before this Frost purposefully narrates a mundane story about typical life on a farm. Mother nature is described with an elegance that is characteristic of Frost’s work. His mention of the sunset marks the end of the day, which acts as a symbol for the end of the boy’s life.

Frost’s exclusion of separate stanzas acts to make the climax appear out of the blue. As a reader, it’s quite surprising and unexpected when we reach the point where the accident occurs. This technique effectively portrays the constant threat of death in daily life.

The poem ends abruptly when the rest of the family gets up and continues with their lives. There is no sorrow or lamentation from the family, they’ve accepted that there is ‘No more to build here’. This reaction naturally raises the question: if life is so fragile, where can we find value in it?

Technology vs Nature

Although the majority of 'Out, Out' takes place in a rural setting, the buzz saw acts to represent technology and how people interact with it. Frost paints a negative and dangerous image of the buzz saw by personifying it with aggressive words such as 'snarled' and 'rattled'. The negative aspect is further emphasised by the juxtaposition of nature in comparison with this technology.

It’s obvious that the buzz saw doesn't have evil motives, but this sentiment is put forward. During the accident, the buzz saw is described as leaping at the boy’s hand. The point that can be gathered from this is that although technology brings advancements in productivity and production, it comes with a cost, which is the danger and destruction that the machinery is capable of.

Out, Out - Key Takeaways

  • The title of the poem 'Out, Out' is an allusion to Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. The quote 'Out, out, brief candle!' referenced the fragility of life.
  • 'Out, Out' is based on a real-life experience from Robert Frost’s life: the farm boy who dies in the poem was Frost’s neighbour in New Hampshire.
  • 'Out, Out' has only one stanza and is written in free verse.
  • 'Out, Out' makes use of poetic devices such as alliteration, juxtaposition, and enjambment.
  • The main themes of 'Out, Out' include life and death, as well as how people interact with technology.

1. Jay Parini, Robert Frost: A Life, 1998.

Frequently Asked Questions about Out, Out

The speaker in 'Out, Out' is for the most part an objective narrator of the day’s events. However, in some sections the speaker puts forward first-person thoughts and opinions of the events that unfold.

Robert Frost wrote 'Out, Out' in 1916.

Robert Frost wrote 'Out, Out' after finding out about the tragic death of a young boy in his local community.

'Out, Out' primarily delves into the nature of life and death and also the role that technology plays alongside mankind.

'Out, Out' is a narrative poem.

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