Shmoopers, hang onto your hats—we're headed into the deep, grim dark of the New England night. In 1916, World War One was raging in Europe, but American poet Robert Frost was out of the action, living on a farm in New Hampshire.
In this little corner of the world, at this particular moment in time, Frost does what he does best—he tackles some of the heftiest, biggest, and grimmest issues of life by using understated, simple words and images. We're not on some great European battlefield, though we're talking about death; we're not in an industrial mill, though we're talking about work and production.
"Out, Out" is the simple, sad story of a young boy who slices his hand off while cutting wood in front of his house. And he dies. If you're in the market for bright, flowery language and sunny skies, look elsewhere—this is Frost coming to terms with death in a time of war, but through the lens of the pastoral New England dusk. It first appeared in Mountain Interval, a collection of poems published by Frost in 1916 ("The Road Not Taken" was also published there). It is somewhat earlier than another of Frost's most famous poems, "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening," published in 1922.
Why Should I Care?
Robert Frost is the master of posing huge philosophical, societal questions in small, easy-to-understand ways. He knows that not all ideas work on battlefields, in universities, or state capitals—in this poem, we're still on a rural New England farm. The focus here is the brevity of life, and the struggle against death.
In "Out, Out," Frost is juxtaposing the futility of work with the necessity of work. Basically, the boy cuts wood so that the stove in his house can heat the family. Work here means survival, and the boy is just old enough to be helping to take care of the family instead of being taken care of. Work in the poem is futile, though, because it only staves off the eventual oncoming of death, which cannot be stopped. Why work to survive if you're just going to die? That's the poem's basic struggle, and it's an idea that, in some way or another, everyone has to contend with in their lives. Fear not, though, Shmoopers—we're here to help you cut that wood.