Study Guide

Out, Out Analysis

  • Sound Check

    How does this poem sound when you read it aloud? Go ahead, we'll wait.

    OK, now that you've read the entire poem aloud to yourself (or at least the first few lines), notice how good Frost is at melding flow with stop. So, when we're reading about sunsets, scenery, or things like that, the poem goes pretty smoothly without cluttered punctuation. But when Frost wants us to stop, with a "So" or a "no one believed," it halts dead in its tracks. 

    Take line 25 as an example: "He saw all was spoiled. 'Don't let him cut my hand off—.'" In the first sentence, we begin with a smooth flow (including the grim "saw" pun) until we hit the word "spoiled." The verse then immediately jumps into the boy's voice, which echoes in your head creepily. 

    Also, note how effective Frost's use of alliteration is: "day was all but done" (9). The dull throb of those D words implies a certain finality to things. All the H alliteration in "He must have given the hand. However it was," creates a kind of breathless rush that adds to the urgency surrounding the accident. The sounds of the poem, then, reinforce the poem's content, drawing our ear toward its focus.

  • What's Up With the Title?

    Frost's title is a reference to Shakespeare's Macbeth. It alludes to Macbeth's speech after the death of his wife, where he comments on the frailty and pointlessness of life. The full text is:

    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.

    Depressing, huh? We know. We're here to help. Why would Frost use this title? Well, for one thing, the poem is exploring similar themes of human helplessness. We're dealing with life cut off, abbreviated, and taken away here; slicing the whole phrase up (so "Out, Out" as opposed to "Out, out, brief candle!") extends that image. 

    In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth is also torn up by her part in the murder of Duncan. She has blood on her hands, and can't get it off (she echoes the above passage when she tries to clean herself in scene 1 of Act 5, saying "Out, damned spot! out, I say!"). Ultimately, the only way to get the blood off for her is through suicide—the imagery of the boy's hand matches that of Lady Macbeth's. The boy is too young to be careful in his work, and so he dies. The work of their hands is too much for them to handle, and death is a way out of sorts.

    The title, then, brings together these ideas of work, death, and the meaninglessness of life itself. Good times?

  • Setting

    New England: this is a classic Frost setting. We're in rural New Hampshire, close to the Vermont border. What does this mean for you, dear reader?

    Well, first of all, we're in an old school place. That means wood-fired stoves and cold winters. This brings us to the saw—we're rural enough that we need wood for heat, but we have tools like buzz saws to make the process of slicing the wood easier. Also notice that the buzz saw is never described in terms of its looks—it is only described in terms of the sounds it makes ("snarl and rattle"), and what it does (cuts). It's almost like a wolf hidden by shadows, or a presence that cannot be understood—the saw is part of the setting, but you have to imagine it for yourself. 

    It's here in the country that industrial tools like saws meet older uses like wood-stove woodcutting. The rural setting also means no ambulances or hospitals in range. Don't let the old-time, country context fool you though, this setting is not just a backdrop for a Christmas sleigh ride. There's something disturbing about this place, where a human life is measured against its ability to pit machines against the natural world.

  • Speaker

    Biographically, it seems that Robert Frost had an event like this occur in his life—his neighbor was a young man who sliced his hand on a saw and later died. Remember, though, readers, Frost is not necessarily the speaker in the poem. Instead, he wrote the poem from the perspective of the speaker. 

    And that speaker here is a third-person observer who seems to be sorting through what happened—he dwells on events that took place over the course of milliseconds, and seems to try to understand what role the saw played in the event. He depicts the transition from concern to callousness that occurs when the boy dies and is no longer fit for work, but does not comment on it. There's no line here that says, "And the family disregarded the boy, and they're bad for doing it." 

    Think about what it means that the speaker is detached. This is a tragic scene, and yet the tragedy of it seems totally lost on the boy's family. They turn to "their affairs" rather than the boy's arrangements or, you know, anything like grief. For the speaker, this means that his voice echoes that of the participants. There is an emotional disconnect here that allows us to approach this tragedy from the perspective of work. There is "no more to build on" in this vicious cycle of work to avoid death, and death caused by that same work.

    The cycle is all the more tragic because the reader is forced to fill the void the speaker has left in terms of empathy. The speaker presents this story without over-the-top emotional commentary, but that reserved silence allows us, as readers, to interject our own sense of loss and outrage at the boy's senseless death. By playing it cool, the speaker allows us to be the ones getting heated up about this tale.

  • Tough-o-Meter

    (3) Base Camp

    We're not dealing with any complex phrases here, and the poem is pretty short. But given its content and message, it's a trek above sea level. This ascent may be a depressing one, but it's not like scaling any staggering heights.

  • Calling Card

    Hefty Country Issues of Life and Death

    Robert Frost always set his poems in the country, and they're rarely about how epic that flower over there looks in the sunlight. He tackles hefty issues. Life, unexpected death, roads not traveled, neighbors, and misery are just a few of his favorite subjects. You can also pick him out of a crowd for his colloquial language, simple verses, and issues of masculinity. Check out "Acquainted with the Night," "Birches," or "The Road Not Taken" for just an appetizer.

  • Form and Meter

    Blank Verse, Here and There

    By and large, in "Out, Out" Frost employs a form called blank verse. This allows the poet to use iambic pentameter when he or she wants to, but the poet is also not wedded to a specific format like a haiku or sonnet. So... what do we mean by iambic pentameter? Well, an iamb is really just a pair of syllables, the first one being unstressed and the second one stressed. (If you say "allow" out loud, you'll hear the iambic rhythm: da DUM.) In the case of iambic pentameter, you have lines with five ("penta-" means five) of these iambs hanging out together. Check it out:

    And then—the watcher at his pulse took fright. (30)

    Of course, blank verse just means iambic pentameter that doesn't rhyme, but we can't say that this pattern holds up throughout the poem. Just check out this line, for example:

    So. But the hand was gone already. (27)

    While you do get an iambic pattern to a certain degree in this line, it's definitely not following the pentameter from other lines. So, what's up with that, Frosty? Why would he employ such a regular, rigid form and then break it so completely? Well, in the case of line 27, Frost interrupts his own meter to let us know that something terrible has happened. You must stop reading the poem at the end of the word, "So." The punctuation and the meter interruption allow Frost to make his point of death in verse. The flow of the poem dies, just as the boy is about to.

    This back and forth, between a regular iambic pattern, and variations on that theme, seem like pretty appropriates choices for form and meter if you ask us. This poem explores the ways that work, and machines, force us into hard, steadfast roles—either we're working, or we're not worth consideration. The steadfastness of the iambic lines reflect that. And yet, there's something deeply unsettling about this arrangement, in terms of the content (the boy's death) and as reflected in the varying metrical lines throughout the poem. "What kind of ground has all the mechanized labor put us on?" Frost seems to ask us with these shifting line rhythms. Shaky indeed.

  • The Country

    This poem has country images all over the place. Frost is the king of rural New England imagery, and it serves not just to create a setting, but a mood. We have pastoral, semi-industrial, and homely all condensed. This particular poem's agenda is to interrogate certain aspects of that lifestyle, especially those associated with production.

    • Line 2: Nothing like "stove-length sticks of wood" to power your home stove. But seriously, this is a classic country image. Harvesting wood for heat means that it must be split, dried, and stored. The poem opens on this task.
    • Line 6: Sunsets are a classic country image (no smog, no pigeons). This one is particularly country-esque because it actually locates us. Because the sun sets in the west in Vermont (as Frost tells us), we know what state we're in.
    • Line 12: The image of a boy "saved from work" goes from My Antonia to Charlotte's Web. In rural fictional homes, children begin to do adults' work sooner because there is more work to be done, and because it gets the action going. This is classic stuff, people.
    • Line 14: The woman calling to her family for supper is an image to be found all over rural literature. This particular poem doesn't have much to say about female roles on a farm other than invoking this basic image.
    • Line 26: Anne of Green Gables? Dr. Quinn? Rural doctors abound (but must be summoned), and this poem is no exception.
  • Sensory Imagery

    A major piece of this poem is sensory—that is, what did this experience look like? What did it sound like? We transition from a pastoral (but still industrial) country scene to a grim bedside death-watch. In some cases, a lack of sound can be almost as disturbing as sound itself. Notice also (this is super-important) that Frost does not describe what the hand meeting the saw sounded like. You'd think he would, given all the sound imagery in the rest of the poem, but he gives us enough information (what the boy sounds like, what the saw sounds like) to construct the grisly image in our heads.

    • Line 1: One of the biggest sensory images in the poem—the sound of the saw: "snarled and rattled." Most of you readers have probably heard a saw before, but notice how Frost combines an animal image (snarl) with a machine-like one (rattle). This is crucial to Frost's message.
    • Line 3: The sawdust was "sweet-scented when the breeze drew across it." Not only do we have smell here, but we also have touch (how the wind feels when it blows by). 
    • Line 5: Again, we get the standard but beautiful New England sunset. Notice how by line 5 into the poem, we've already hit almost all of the senses. 
    • Line 7: This snarling and rattling is everywhere! Why? Frost hammers home the repetitiveness of a machine like the saw—it doesn't think or feel, it just repeats. This is important also because the saw as a character is merciless (not in the sense of cruelty, but in the sense that even an animated saw lacks mercy or feeling). 
    • Line 19: The boy's first cry after slicing his hand is "a rueful laugh," or a regretful laugh. Essentially, this scene is so tragic because the boy almost laughs at what could have been something huge, and then realizes that it is in fact something huge. 
    • Line 32: Frost is never more tragic, and never more simple, than in his description of the boy's death: "Little-less-nothing!" Crucial here is the lack of sounds, rather than a burst of them. Silence connotes death, and so the winding down of sensory imagery here alerts us to death's presence.
  • The Saw

    A major character in the poem is the saw—no, not the one from Saw V. Frost doesn't exactly give the saw agency, but it does appear as more of a character than you might think. You could read the saw as simply an extension of the boy's personality, or you could also read the saw as an independent character. The poem is designed to make us think about what role the saw plays in all of this, and to use imagery that makes it seem more active than passive. After all, are tools passive things or active actors? It's a question that that poem seems to be grappling with.

    • Lines 1-2: The imagery here is sensory and productive. We hear the noises the saw makes, and see the things it produces (dust and sticks). Notice how Frost uses the word "make" to refer to dust, and "drop" to refer to the actual production of fire-logs—it's as though he's implying that the saw's production is simply to convert dust to dust. One could even argue that the poem is about inverted production, about humans slaving away at their own destruction with machines that simply hasten dust's return to dust. 
    • Line 8: The saw either "runs light" or has to "bear a load." These are active, industrious images that alert us to the use-value of the saw.
    • Line 15: Here's where things get interesting. The saw "leaps" at the word "Supper" "as if to prove saws know what supper meant." It's almost as though the saw is attempting to break out of its machine shell to take on a human characteristic of awareness; as an extension of the boy, it takes on the boy's personality. 
    • Line 18: The imagery here attempts to understand the active and passive role that each actor played in the collision. "Neither refused the meeting" seems to be both.
    • Steaminess Rating

      G

      Not much steaminess to count on here, but we do have a lot of blood and a whole lot of hefty commentary about the indifference of humanity to death.

    • Allusions

      Literary and Philosophical References:

      • Shakespeare, Macbeth, 5:1:26-40, 5:5:19-28 (title): Head over to our "What's Up With The Title?" section to see more about this shout-out.