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Dissecting Poetry: 'Out, Out—' by Robert Frost

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The Poet

Robert Lee Frost, considered as one of the finest poets that American Literature has ever produced, was born in 1874. His first published poem appeared in his high school paper and he continued his writing not allowing his school work to falter, subsequently graduated as co-valedictorian with Elinor White to whom later he got married. He reached the height of American poet Laureate of his time and later years of his life were filled with honour heaped upon honour that also includes four Pulitzer Prizes. Robert Frost, the most celebrated American poet of the 20th century, died in Boston, the USA in 1963.

Robert Frost poetry mainly deals with issues such as nature, loneliness and isolation, love, self-discovery, social criticism etc, and his poetry is very famous as “Deceptively simple” – what is hinted on the surface is not the in-depth theme which is the core of the poem. If one considers Frost’ poetry as simple, he or she is very sadly mistaken because some of his poems are highly philosophical though they look simple and direct proving his  famous saying “A poem begins in delight but ends in wisdom.”

Background of the Poem: ‘Out, Out’

‘Out, Out ‘is a key poem of Robert Frost in many ways, It brings out a harsh Social criticism portraying a highly mechanical society that came to stay as an inevitable consequence of industrial Revolution. Industrial Revolution shaped and created such a society which is built on four main pillars.

 

“Out, Out”, a dramatic narrative 0f 34 lines, presents the picture of the violent and sudden death of a young boy whose hand has been cut off by a buzz- saw. This is, no doubt a poem of anti – industrialization that depicts the nature of the aforesaid society and the tragedy of people who work with inhuman machines.

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.

The Analysis

The title “Out, Out” is drawn from Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, ‘Macbeth’ in which Macbeth, hearing the death of his wife, Lady Macbeth, and foreseeing his impending death says,

 

Out, Out brief candle
Life’s but a walking shadow

 

This is an undeniable reminder of the impermanency of life which actually becomes the central theme of the poem amidst so many other issues. The first lines of the poem bring the imagery of a buzz- saw in a timber mill which is the location of the poem. The first line, The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard is repeated in the poem to create an idea of the monotony of life that was very common in Industrialised and Urbanised societies. Buzz- saw obviously generates so much of noise that highlights sound pollution as an issue. In the second line ‘made dust’ suggests air pollution which is an obvious case in a timber mill. ‘dropped stove-length’ elaborates that cutting of timber in the size of fourteen feet, maybe because it is the double size of door-length. The cutting timber into stove length, however, brings forward the issue of deforestation which is also unavoidable consequence in industrialisation and urbanisation. The next line ‘sweet-scented staff’ again reminds us of the air pollution together with olfactory imagery (sense of smell), if one is really in the mood, the reader may feel the smell of saw dust which is mixed with ‘the breeze’

The next two lines: And from there those that lifted eyes could count Five mountain ranges one behind the other

Provide us with the important information of the location – where the timber mill is situated. It must be on a top or a mid – way of a mountain, creating a panoramic view of the beautiful surroundings that include ‘five mountain ranges one behind the other’. And from there those that lifted eyes could count’ portrays the fact that people working in a timber mill, of course, have no time to lift their eyes and see the beautiful environment. This is rather natural when people work with machines they have to work in par with machines and no time to enjoy nature. This is something that is stressed by Robert Frost of modern society. In technique-wise this brings in fore-shadowing technique as it gives a clue of the calamity taking place subsequently- this is what happens if you lift your eyes because the boy lifts his eyes when the supper is called. Next to the repetition, And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled portrays the monotony and tedious nature of the workforce of at the mill.

Through the first eight lines of the poem, Frost rather effectively sets the scene providing necessary information of what happens, where it happens, who is involved in etc. ‘Nothing happened’ essentially warns that ‘get ready, something is going to happen’ which also brings in the technique of ‘fore-shadowing’ and ‘day was all but done’ too is very ironic as the real actions of the day are going to commence there. ‘Call it a day, I wish they might have said’ changes the mood of the poem coming down to the main narration. With the personal

the pronoun ‘I’, the poet intertwines showing an emotional and sensitive appeal. This develops a curiosity in the reader’s mind questioning – why is he so much moved about the boy? Why the boy should be given ‘the half-hour’? ‘That a boy counts so much when saved from work’ provides us with the clue that the boy plays a very crucial role in the mill though he looks no professional and too young to be so. The real drama that has been inculcated to the poem appears to be with ‘his sister’ calling ‘supper’. With the personification of the ‘saw’, (‘as if to prove saws knew what supper meant’) the reaction of ‘the saw’ to the supper is speculated with three options.

  1. Leaped out at boys’ s hand
  2. Seemed to leap
  3. He must have given the hand

Why three options? Why can’t the poet categorically mention what really happened? The answer is simple. This is an accident, in an accident too many things happen in a moment making it too complex to guess which is which. Here, we are at the climax of the poem. However, Frost refrains from the straightforward revelation of the fact that the hand is cut. Frost puts it as ‘neither refused the meetings’. When ‘saw’ meets with the hand, which scums the damage is pretty obvious, that’s why ‘but the hand’

The boy’s first reaction, ‘a rueful laugh’, which is an oxymoron (two contradictory things, notions put together), depicts that the boy actually does not realize what exactly happened and he obviously does not muster enough courage to look at his hand which he thinks is still there. The boy’s facial expressions naturally at that moment are hard to define - ‘half in appeal, but half, as to keep’ as the boy, is in an indefinable shock. ‘The life from spilling’ serves dual purpose: the spill of blood and his life itself being spilling (falling). The Ellipsis used after ‘then the boy saw all..’ suggests that the boy, in the true sense, did not see all as he later appeals ‘Don’t let him cut my hand off’. ‘Big boy doing man’s work’ brings out both the child exploitation and labour exploitation raising the question – what man’s work is gained from a boy? Why the boy is placed at a crucial job of the mill, for which a professional is needed? Don’t let him cut my hand off- generates a sense of sympathy towards the boy because he knows that without the hand he obviously can’t continue to work in the mill. He may be the breadwinner of his family otherwise he may not be working at a time when he should be schooling. With this emotional appeal, the poet hints the social tragedy in relation to child exploitation. Nevertheless ‘hand was gone already’ the boy does not have the courage to look at his hand and moreover, he is in a great shock. The doctor arrives in the scene and plans to cut his hand which must be hanging with the nerves or to cut it properly to stop of bleeding, yet the hand is already amputated. ‘They listened to his heart’ too creates an ironic sense depending on the situation. Though the doctor is in the scene, Frost uses ‘they’ to represent society- when the boy was alive nobody listened to his heart, now he breaths his last, they listen, what an irony? The way the boy died is too dramatized. – ‘Little – less- nothing and that ended it’ the final two lines are the culmination of the social theme of the poem.

No more to build on there. And they, since they Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

This, on one hand, suggests the mechanical nature of the people who are the products of materialistic, capitalistic, Individualistic, competitive society. Their fellow worker died on the spot in cold blood, nevertheless, they ‘turned to their affairs’. This may also convey the notion that by working with machines people too have transformed themselves into machines. But moving further, ‘since they were not the one dead’ connotes the meaning that ‘if you are not the one dead you got to work’ otherwise no way that you could survive in this society where everything and everybody are sold in one way or the other. “Out, Out” by Robert Frost therefore, provides us a good example to empasise the true sense of his famous saying: Poetry should begin in delight and end in wisdom.

Swarnananda Gamage

Senior Lecturer

Department of English Language Teaching Buddhist and Pali University of Sri Lanka

References

Bradley, A.C Oxford lectures on poetry, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 1999 Coles Editorial Board, Robert Forest Poetry, New Delhi: Rama Brothers India Pvt Ltd, 1986

Gamage Swarnananda, The Indispensable Literary Terms & Techniques, Olanco Printers, Boralesgamuwa, 2016

Gamage Swarnananda & Dissanayeke Palitha, Discourse Analysis, Sarasavi Publications, Sri Lanka, 2008

Irvine, William & Park Honan, The book, the ring, and the poet, London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1975

Wijesingha, Rajiva (Ed), A selection of English Poetry, International Book House private Ltd, Kurunegala, 1998

Williams, R, The country and the city, New York: Oxford University Press, 1978