Out, Out Summary
A boy old enough to work labors in his backyard, slicing wood for the stove. His sister calls him for supper, and eager eat, the boy jumps a bit. The saw, almost portrayed as a character in its own right, nearly slices the boy's hand off—grim stuff.
The doctor comes to help, and amputates the hand. He puts to boy under with ether (an early, dangerous form of anesthesia), but the boy dies. The rest of his family moves on. Talk about heavy.
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.
- Introduction time. Shmoopers, the first lines of the poem pack a punch to be reckoned with. We're introduced to one of the main "characters" of the poem, the saw. Notice how there is no operator of the saw here—it's just as though the saw is working on its own, with its only companion the breeze and the dust it produces. The saw is anthropomorphized here, which is just a fancy word for personification.
- The saw is a machine making animal noises, "snarling" and rattling." This is some onomatopoeia. It also makes the first line animalistic, but the second is productive and machinelike—it produces dust and logs for a fire to keep people warm.
- In line three, we get a sensory setup—the dust is "sweet-scented stuff" when the wind blows.
- We also have a strange construction: saws make wood logs, not dust. Our attention is called to the refuse of the saw's work, though. We wonder if that might be important later on.
- For now, though, in three short line, we have some of the main ideas of the poem—unsupervised machinery, the mixing of the wild (animal saw) and the productive (human), and the sensory experience of that process.
- A note on the rhythm: we've got some iambic pentameter in free verse here, better known as blank verse. It's not consistent, though. Notice how Frost mixes and matches here. The first line is iambic, but only part of the third line is. Head over to our "Form and Meter" section for more.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
- Lines 4-6 continue setting the stage.
- We are told exactly where we are—if the sun is setting to the west, and Vermont is to the west, then we must be in… (checking Google Maps)… Santa Monica—no wait: New Hampshire.
- We're in rural New England, folks, and we're surrounded by mountains, sunsets, and other natural imagery.
- See also how Frost sets up our sense of space—"those that lifted eyes could count"—this is an incredible line about human awareness of spatiality.
- What we mean is, humans are more than dumb animals—we can count things, observe how space works, and experience beauty.
- So here, Frost is essentially telling us, "Listen up readers! This is about taking in what your eyes can see. This poem is about understanding how your surroundings work, and where you are in them." We guess we'd better step up our analysis game, then.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
- Repetition, repetition, repetition. Why say line one again? Well, first off, what does a saw do? It cuts and cuts repeatedly. We get a sense of the repetitiveness of the task here, sawing wood. Also, it gives the reader a sensory experience. You read those lines and you can hear the saw in your head—over and over again.
- This repetition between the saw cutting logs and the saw still running between logs changes up the noise. It's running "light" while the boy prepares a new log, and it "bears a load" when the boy is feeding wood through the saw.
- Notice though, that the boy still hasn't been mentioned. The saw runs light, not the boy. The saw is still the subject here. The machine is taking on man's tasks—usually we think of men and women "bearing loads" literally or figuratively. It's a metaphor for work, and implies that things are being dealt with, produced, and carried. But here, it's the machine taking on the metaphor as well as the work itself.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
- Wait just a darn minute. Isn't the point of any poem that something happens worth mentioning? The idea here is not to turn you off, but to make you see that nothing out of the ordinary has happened yet. This is a normal day on the farm, and it was about to end, when... the action of the poem happens.
- Also see here how Frost uses meter (iambic) to have this line sing. It's concise, simple, and the very cadence of the line reinforces its message. In the second half of the sentence, notice the alliteration of the D words. This creates a tone of seriousness, finality, and purpose.
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.
- The speaker pops into the first person for a moment here to lament what happens later in the poem. Although day is almost gone, the boy still had half an hour of work left. If only he had been given the day off, then the unthinkable might not have occurred.
- Notice how Frost appropriates a colloquialism—"call it a day"—here to great effect. The speaker uses the vernacular of simple country folk, and we understand that he (we assume it's a he) shares much in common with the people whose lives he's describing in the poem.
- Also, of supreme importance in these lines: notice how we have different perspectives on work. For a man, working half an hour doesn't make as much difference, but to a boy doing a man's work, half an hour lost or gained is a huge deal. These lines are a reminder that the poem is interested in different ideas of work and masculinity.
- In this hypothetical tangent, the boy is still "saved" from work, as opposed to tragedy. This can be read in terms of saving time, and also being saved from doing more work by a merciful relative.
His sister stood beside him in her apron
To tell them "Supper."
- Again, we get these simple, picturesque country images—a domestic female summoning the men in for supper. Can't fight it folks, this is the 1910s—clichés abound.
- Notice how Frost uses these images to create a scene of normalcy and calm. Just an ordinary day, and an ordinary supper call.
At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws know 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!
- So what happens in these lines? Frost melds the imagery of the boy hitting his hand on the saw, and the imagery of the saw hitting the boy's hand. In a nutshell, the boy cuts his hand. But Frost refuses to give complete responsibility for the accident to the boy, and his description also seems to better match the strangeness and horror of the scene (with more personification of the saw).
- We can't quite see what happened—the saw "leaped," or "seemed to leap"—and the logical conclusion follows, that the boy must have "given the hand" to the saw. This line is particularly striking because a saw, like all tools, is an extension of a human.
- We create tools to help us work easily, and we in effect sign over the difficult parts of work to these tools. In this exchange, though, the boy is giving his hand to the saw, and it's as if the machine is the entity in charge, not the human.
- So what's the deal with this "proving" business? The real person with something to prove here is the boy (not the saw), because he is doing a man's work. The saw is treated almost as though it were a true character with a personality. The boy is excited for supper, but this blending of personalities and motives raises questions of work and production. When we use tools, do we become instruments ourselves? Is it the saw's fault or the boy's?
- What Frost is describing happened in the space of a millisecond, but it's afforded these four full lines because the speaker wants to sort through the intensity of the scene.
- And what does "neither refused the meeting" mean? Again, the speaker is trying to describe something that happened in the blink of an eye. It was fast, horrific, and he's working to piece it together. So, on reflection, neither the boy nor the saw refused to meet. It seems that both share in the guilt for what happens next.
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.
- The strangeness of the scene is such that the boy almost laughs before realizing that he has grotesquely lacerated his hand.
- Horrifyingly, the boy almost pleads with his family to stop his hand from bleeding. Frost uses "life" in place of blood to imply the seriousness of the injury.
- Notice how Frost chooses which senses to employ here. The boy is clearly in that first second after an injury when the pain hasn't hit your brain yet, but you see what has happened. There's no scream, no yelling—it's that shocked, abbreviated, horrifyingly wrong noise of laughter.
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 was spoiled.
- These lines continue the discussion begun earlier in the poem about a boy doing a man's work. The boy is still a boy, but he's old enough to realize the severity of his injury.
- Again, Frost is the master of perfectly placed colloquialisms—the nickname "big boy" is contrasted with the work he was doing and the injury he sustains.
- Notice here how Frost does not use the phrase, "All was lost." Spoiled is an adjective used in reference to food gone bad, or an activity ruined. It implies a point of no return, but it could also be the same adjective the boy's father would use if he had done a poor job of cutting the wood. We're left to wonder about how the boy's family might view this event. Let's read on.
"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.
- So we know what happens when you sustain an injury that serious. You start to live tweet. No, no—you need medical attention, stat. Instead of routinely describing that process, Frost blends the happenings. The boy utters the line, "Don't let him cut my hand off," and the repetition here helps us to understand the pain the boy is in.
- What's the purpose of the "So." in line 27? Notice how it stops the poem in its tracks. It's so final, brief, and cut off. The idea is to interrupt the line, just as the boy has been interrupted. It serves to let us know that the boy's hand has been amputated, and also in a crueler sense dismisses the boy's objections to the operation.
- Notice how much of an impact the simple phrase, "But the hand was gone already" has on the poem. Sheesh. And we thought Robert Frost was a simple country poet who liked fences.
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 to his heart.
Little—less—nothing!—and that ended it.
- The country doctor puts the boy under with ether, an old anesthetic. As his breathing slows, the person watching his heartbeat realizes that the boy's heart has stopped.
- The speed with which the poem goes from operating room to death mirrors the speed with which the event took place. We see the boy slip away, from "little" to "less" to "nothing."
- Notice how it isn't the boy's mother, father, sister, or doctor watching his pulse. It's the "watcher." The term is almost an industrial one, like a night watchmen or guard.
- The sentences here are structured so that the reader winds down to the eventual conclusion of death in brief, half-line clauses.
- It's almost as though the poem's pulse is winding down with the boy's.
- Again, notice how the boy's heart stopping doesn't mean "his life is over." The line could read, "That ended the boy's life," but it says, "That ended it," as though the boy were an object. He is simply a function of how much work he can do, not a full human being.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.
- The phrase in line 34 is a curious one, but apt. The boy is tragically dead, but the phrase is one we might see at the end of a presentation, or the completion of a building, or the end of a debate. It implies that work has been invested in and is indivisible from the boy's essence. In that sense, "they" see the tragedy as simply an impassable impediment: there's no point in further investing in the boy. He is only as good as the work he does.
- When you see the boy in this way, then there is nothing to do but move on. Death here only stops work. And since the work is what remains to be done, they abandon the memory of the boy.
- So why end the poem on this callous note? Some read it as a commentary on the nature of death in an industrialized world, while others see it as a reading of the value of human life during WWI. We discuss those readings later (see, for example, "Themes: Death"), but it's important to remember that, in one simple sense, Frost is suggesting that the family is moving on because there is nothing else to do.