Analysis of Robert Frost’s ‘Out, Out—’

‘Out, Out—’ (1916)

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—’ ” is one of Frost’s most dramatic and celebrated poems. It was written in memorial to a neighborhood boy Frost knew when he was living in Franconia, New Hampshire. Raymond Tracy Fitzgerald, a 16-year-old twin, lived on the South Road outside of Bethlehem. An article about his sudden death appeared in the Littleton Courier on March 31, 1910. Frost knew the boy well; Frost’s children and Fitzgerald had played together. Fitzgerald lost his life from shock and heart failure on March 24, 1910, within moments of having his hand lacerated by a buzz saw (Thompson, 566–567).

The “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” of the title is a reference to Act 5, scene 5, of Shakespeare’s Macbeth: “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.” Robert Pack holds that Frost’s “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” “is a confrontation with such nothingness” and that the “meaninglessness of death is anticipated early in the poem with the image of dust” (158).

The young boy is assisting in the sawing of wood in his backyard. He is a “big boy / Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart.” The buzz saw is depicted as animate and malevolent from the start. It is described as snarling and rattling in the yard, seemingly out of control, as if on the lookout for something to tear into. The wood the boy is cutting, in contrast, is referred to as “[s]weet scented stuff,” calling to mind the child’s youth and innocence in contrast to the work he is doing. The brutality of the saw and how quickly it can cut through wood or flesh also is acknowledged. The scene is seductively picturesque. It is dusk, and five Vermont mountain ranges are visible “[u]nder the sunset.” The scene has a rustic serenity that the saw’s buzzing, snarling, and rattling interrupt.

the smoke of an extinguished candle on black background.

The speaker explains how the saw snarled and rattled, yet “nothing happened: day was all but done.” In other words, the saw had been doing its job without causing any harm until now. He wishes they had simply “call[ed] it a day,” because by doing so the incident might have been avoided. It was all in the timing. There is a sense that the slightest change in the day’s events would have changed everything. If only the boy had been given a half an hour at rest or at play instead, Frost speculates in hindsight.

The boy’s sister comes to call the workers for supper and “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.” The description of the accident is startling. It is presented as a chain effect. The girl announces “Supper,” and her simple utterance begins the chain reaction. The poem treats her as the beginning, if not the cause. She has called the boy for dinner and has somehow met the time frame of the saw, perhaps by drawing the boy’s attention away. The responsibility is not hers, but her role makes clear the pain she would feel about her involvement. The animated saw is seen to respond to her utterance, rather than, as might be supposed, her call causing the boy to avert his eyes from his task to look up, thereby losing control of the saw. It is suggested that the saw actually leapt, as though it was waiting, anticipating the moment when it could do so. Its actions appear premeditated. But then Frost writes that the boy must have “given” the hand, returning to reality, to the sudden recognition that the chain of events he has described is inaccurate. His conclusion is an acceptance that neither hand nor saw “refused the meeting.” There is a macabre element to this insight, as though hand and saw somehow sought each other out.

“The boy’s first outcry [is] a rueful laugh,” as though he recognizes the severity of what has happened and can somehow anticipate his death. The boy laughs because he is caught by surprise—what has happened is not yet real. He is in shock, thinking his hand remains intact when it has already been terribly lacerated. He holds it up to keep the “life” and blood “from spilling” but also in “appeal,” in the hope that something can be done, that something can be undone. The boy “saw all spoiled,” as if he saw his brief life passing by in an instant. Robert Faggen notes that the “boy loses his hand, one crucial part of human anatomy that distinguishes this species from all others and represents the variant that enabled the creation, production, and use of tools. Ironically, it is cut off by the form, the tool that it created. The tool that it created becomes, ironically, a weapon against its creator” (153).

The doctor comes and places the boy “in the dark of ether.” But he is only with the boy a moment before the boy is gone as quickly as his hand. “No one believed” that he had died any more than the boy had believed his hand was lost. They listen, the snarling and rattling of the buzz saw silenced; the scene is without sound, except for the boy’s faint pulse. “Little—less—nothing!” is the pronouncement, and “that end[s] it.”

The scene, the boy’s life, are ended. “No more to build on there,” the speaker, detached, resolves coolly; “And they, since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” The ending phrase echoes sentiments about death from the wife at the end of “Home Burial”:

One is alone, and he dies more alone.
Friends make pretense of following to the grave,
But before one is in it, their minds are turned
And making the best of their way back to life
And living people, and things they understand.

Both poems concern the death of boys, though of different ages and by different means. Jay Parini writes that “However heartless these lines have sounded to some ears, Frost is making a point about a way of dealing with grief; by plunging back into the affairs of life, which demand attention (especially in the context of a poor farm at the turn of the century), the grieving family is able to work through their grief.” Parini also notes that when Frost and his wife Elinor lost their young son Elliott to cholera, they “could not simply stop in their tracks.” They had a 14-month-old daughter, Lesley, and chickens that needed tending, among other demands (70).

Still, the phrasing comes off as cold and factual, like a newspaper report. But when faced with such loss of a person, with such brutality in nature, how can people be expected to respond? Robert Pack holds that the speaker is “outside the story he is telling” but “wishes to enter into the scene as one of the characters as if he might be of some help” (158). This is clear from the speaker’s efforts in the beginning of the poem to turn back time, to call it a day, to undo before it is done. Faggen also finds that “the poem is rather stoic in its ultimate tone of acceptance of the way individual lives become sacrificed unexpectedly in a general machinery. Here the machinery, a buzz saw, takes on a life of its own and destroys the hand that created it” (152). The recognition of the randomness of life, of vulnerability in the face of meaningless acts, ends the poem abruptly. But the poem also might be said to end in bitterness and frustration rather than cool detachment. After all, the speaker is not among those who have “turned to their affairs” but is still trying to build on what is “no more.”

The poem was first published in July 1916 in McClure’s; it was later collected in Mountain Interval.

Bruels, Marcia F. “Frost’s ‘Out, Out—,’ ” Explicator 55, no. 2 (Winter 1997): 85–88. Cramer, Jeffrey S. Robert Frost among His Poems: A Literary Companion to the Poet’s Own Biographical Contexts and Associations. Jefferson, N.C.: MacFarland, 1996. Faggen, Robert. Robert Frost and the Challenge of Darwin. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 152–153. Hoffman, Tyler. Robert Frost and the Politics of Poetry. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2001. Locklear, Gloriana. “Frost’s ‘Out, Out—,’ ” Explicator 49, no. 3 (Spring 1991): 167–169. Pack, Robert. Belief and Uncertainty in the Poetry of Robert Frost. Hanover, N.H.: Middlebury College Press, 2003. Parini, Jay. Robert Frost: A Life. New York: Holt, 1999. Sears, John F. “The Subversive Performer in Frost’s ‘Snow’ and ‘Out, Out—,’ ” In The Motive for Metaphor: Essays on Modern Poetry, edited by Francis C. Blessington and Guy L. Rotella, 82–92. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1983. Thompson, Lawrance. Robert Frost: The Early Years. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1966.

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