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Relevant Background  | SummaryThemesTones
ImagerySound Effects

Out Out
Robert Frost [1874-1963]

Relevant Background

  • Robert Frost was born in San Francisco. He lived most of his life on a farm in the region of New England, on the eastern side of America.
  • He went to university at Dartmouth College in 1892, and later Harvard, but never gained a formal degree
  • Among his early jobs, he taught school and worked in a mill and as a newspaper reporter. He remained a teacher and lecturer for much of his life.
  • His rich grandfather bought him a farm.
  • He wrote a lot of poems about country life and the beauty of landscape in the American state of New England. His poems could be about any place.
  • Frost wrote ‘Out Out’ around 1915. In ‘Out Out’, he remembered a boy who died in a farmyard accident. The original true event was reported in a local newspaper five years before Frost wrote ‘Out Out’.
  • Frost took the title from a famous quote in Shakespeare’s play Macbeth. In Macbeth’s speech, Macbeth compares life to a burning candle that can be snuffed out any time: ‘Out, out, brief candle’.
  • Frost liked to use language as it is actually spoken. The many everyday phrases in the poem show this aspect of his style.
  • Frost is a poet of deep thoughts. Behind his descriptions, you can find a deeper meaning. When he described events, Frost usually had a moral point to make. In ‘Out Out’ Frost’s point is that life can be brutal and short.

Summary

General Introduction
This thirty-nine-line poem consists of one verse paragraph. It does not have stanzas. It is one whole block of text.
In this poem rhythm matches meaning (See the note on rhythm)
The poem is a narrative. It is an account of a single event, a boy’s death in a farmyard accident.
This poem is a story told by a narrator. Frost was not a witness to the accident. He imagined it and recreated it from the details he learned. It happened on a neighbour’s farm and Frost read about it in the local newspaper.
The one use of ‘I’ in the poem, in line ten, stands out and emphasises the narrator’s wish that the accident had never happened.
‘Out Out’ is narrated in the past tense.

‘Out Out’ is set in the countryside at sunset. The original event was reported in March 1910. The poem gives very little evidence of the season. The reference to ‘stove-length’ may suggest that the season was chilly enough to require stoves to be lit.
Frost describes the scene of a buzz-saw accident on a farm. While writing about a physical event, Frost also describes the suddenness of death.
Frost compares the ‘buzz-saw’ to a wild beast. He portrays it as a predator or killer of a young life. He also shows that life can end brutally.
Frost also ponders or considers the way others just get on with their life after a death.

On one level, ‘Out Out’ recreates a tragic accident in a country location.
‘Out Out’ also describes the consequences of forcing a boy to do man’s work.
‘Out Out’ also explores the practical and hardheaded attitude of poor farmers towards survival.
On a deeper level, ‘Out Out’ portrays how some people treat human life as insignificant.

Detailed Summary
The narrator at first describes the noise made by the sawing machine as it made stove-length logs and created sawdust:
‘The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard’.
Frost shows his sensual quality as a poet when the narrator describes the pleasant whiff the breeze blew off the timber:
‘Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it’.
This description is relaxed and sensual. The mention of a breeze shows a happy and light-hearted mood. The narrator continues to show his delight in nature up to line six:
‘Five mountain ranges one behind the other’.
But it is evident that most of the farmers don’t pay much attention to the surrounding natural beauty:
‘those that lifted eyes could count’.
Perhaps no one but the narrator lifts eyes to the beauty of the mountains at sunset. The hard working family, with a son sawing and a daughter preparing supper, didn’t have time for the finer things of life.
In line seven, the narrator repeats his description of the sound effects of the sawing machine. The word ‘snarled’ shows danger, like when an angry animal is about to attack. But for a while, ‘nothing happened’. Everybody seemed safe as ‘day was all but done’.
With half an hour to go disaster struck. Perhaps the boy became impatient or tired as the day of sawing dragged on. Anyway, he had no choice but to continue. In any case, he lost concentration at a vital moment. Line sixteen shows this in a comical way. Then the saw that had earlier ‘snarled’, ‘leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap’.
The narrator seems to blame the work ethic or slave-driving values of the boy’s family. In line twelve, the narrator suggests the spirit of the family was mean spirited for denying the boy ‘the half hour that a boy counts so much when saved from work’. The narrator indicates that the boy freely sacrificed his hand:
‘He must have given the hand’.
This is unlikely to be true. But the narrator seems to mean that the boy was used to obeying orders at home. The narrator suggests that the boy offered his hand willingly to the saw. Perhaps he was stupefied or dazed by hard work and hardly knew what he was doing. In his confusion, the boy put his hand in the wrong place. There is a slight hint that the overworked boy had a suicidal moment.
The story behind the incident seems to be that the boy was overworked.
The narrator even joked that at the word ‘supper’ the saw hungrily lunged for or pounced on the boy’s hand. The boy was too exhausted to react on time. He may even have deliberately let the saw slice his hand:
‘Neither refused the meeting’.
The dazed boy reacted strangely, with a ‘rueful laugh’. It is as if the boy was a little insane, laughing guiltily at giving his hand to the saw. Did he do it to spite his father’s endless work demands? Is the boy accusing his demanding father of causing this?
Then it appears he came to his senses, but too late.

He began to seek their forgiveness. His upraised hand was a gesture that was ‘Half in appeal’. Did he feel guilty at his impulse or carelessness?
It finally dawned on the boy that his life was gushing out of his body in his ‘spilling’ blood.
Another reason he held up the hand was to stop the loss of blood.
The narrator shows that the boy, though still a child, knew his fate or doom:
‘though a child at heart—he saw all spoiled’.
He knew his life was over. He knew he played an important role in his family’s hard-up existence. Now that too was ruined.
He wanted to save his hand. He feared amputation by the doctor: 'Don't let him cut my hand off’.
It is interesting that he appealed to his sister. This reveals he did not have a positive relationship with his father. There is no mention of his mother.
It is interesting that the person who waited at his bedside is described as a ‘watcher’. Again, there is no mention of personal care from his parents while he lay unconscious after the amputation.
The doctor knocked the un-named boy unconscious with ‘ether’ and he faded and died after the operation, probably in his own house. Nobody showed much concern until his pulse faded:
‘And then— the watcher at his pulse took fright’.
His family didn’t expect him to die:
‘No one believed’.
The narrator does not mention any gesture or period of mourning:
‘and that ended it’.
The family seemed heartless or callous at the end. They returned to work without their family member:
‘ And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’.


Themes

The theme of this poem is the emotional distance or coldness between family members in rural North America:
‘ And they, since they
were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’.

The theme of this poem is an account of a single event, a boy’s death in a farmyard accident:
‘They listened at his heart.
little—less— nothing’

The theme of this poem is a tragic accident in a country location:
‘At the word, the saw…
leaped out at the boy's hand’.

The theme of this poem is that it is wrong to deny children their childhood:
‘the half hour
that a boy counts so much when saved from work’.

The poet shows the suddenness and speed of death:
‘And nothing happened: day was all but done’.

The theme of the poem is the dangers that exist in a workplace:
‘And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled’.

The theme of this poem is the consequences of forcing a boy to do man’s work:
‘Doing a man's work, though a child at heart’.

The theme of this poem is the practical and hard-headed attitude of poor farmers towards survival:
‘And they, since they
were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’.
This quote shows that the poet explores how some people treat human life as insignificant.

The poet shows that the human attitude toward work can be pitiless:
‘big boy
doing a man's work, though a child at heart’.
This quote also shows the theme of exploitation of family members.

The poet shows the narrow outlook of farmers. He shows how hard working farmers don’t look up at the beauty around them:
‘those that lifted eyes could count
five mountain ranges’.

The theme is the way a farming family were heartless or callous to one of their own:
‘Call it a day, I wish they might have said
to please the boy’.

The theme is how some people treat human life as insignificant:
‘and that ended it.
No more to build on there’.

The theme of the poem is the high price to be paid for a lapse in concentration:
‘But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether’.

The theme is the brevity or shortness of human life:
‘Out, Out’.


Tones

The tone of the title is horrific, angry and violent:
‘ Out, Out—’.

The tone at the start is maddened, sinister and threatening:
‘The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard’.

Then the tone becomes factual:
‘And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood’.

The tone becomes pleasant and sensual:
‘Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.’

Sometimes the tone is sarcastic:
‘ those that lifted eyes could count
five mountain ranges’.

Sometimes the tone is admiring and full of delight:
‘five mountain ranges one behind the other
under the sunset far into Vermont’.

Sometimes the tone is on edge or tense:
‘And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said’

Sometimes the tone is considerate:
‘please the boy by giving him the half hour
that a boy counts so much’

Sometimes the tone is eerie or frightening:
‘Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap’.

Sometimes the tone is shocked or alarmed:
‘But the hand!’

Sometimes the tone is distressing or painful:
‘The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh’.
The tone of this quote is partly ironic or mocking also.

Sometimes the tone is pleading:
‘holding up the hand half in appeal’.

Sometimes the tone is horror-struck:
‘but half as if to keep the life from spilling’.

Sometimes the tone is resigned or passive:
‘Then the boy saw all…
He saw all spoiled’.

Sometimes there is a tone of pity or compassion:
‘Since he was old enough to know, big boy
doing a man's work, though a child at heart’.

Sometimes there is a tone of fear:
'Don't let him cut my hand off
the doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'

Sometimes there is a tone of helplessness:
‘So. But the hand was gone already’.

Sometimes the tone is morbid [or gloomy] and frightening:
‘The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath’.

Sometimes there is a tone of panic and disbelief:
‘the watcher at his pulse took fright. No one believed’.

Sometimes the tone is cold and empty:
‘They listened at his heart.
Little – less – nothing! – and that ended it’.

Finally the tone is indifferent, unconcerned or blasé:
‘ And they, since they
were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’.

In many of the quotes, there is a strong sympathy for the boy. Sympathy is the dominant tone in the poem.
There is also an overall tone of contempt or dislike for the boy’s family.


Imagery

The central image is of a boy bleeding to death.
There are many factual images in the poem

There are just two images of nature:
‘Sweet-scented stuff…
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset’.

There are five factual images of the sawing machine at work:
‘The buzz-saw …rattled
made dust…
dropped stove-length sticks of wood…
As it ran light…
or had to bear a load’.

There are three comparison images of the sawing machine. These comparison images are metaphors. These metaphors all compare the saw to a living being. This type of comparison is also called personification.

‘The buzz-saw snarled …’
[The cutting noise of the saw is compared to a wild animal, like a lion or bear. To compare a thing to a living being is known as personification]

‘As if to prove saws knew what supper meant…’
[The poet imagines that the saw has its own brain. This image assumes the saw had an appetite. This image compares the saw to an intelligent animal that responds to words. This type of metaphor is called personification]

Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap.
[The poet imagines the saw jumped at its prey like a wild animal. To compare a thing to a living being is known as personification]

There are ten images of the boy, his family, their attitude towards him and his relationship to his family.

‘those that lifted eyes could count…’
[This factual image suggests they family were too busy to notice the surrounding beauty.]

‘call it a day, I wish they might have said
to please the boy…’
[This factual image suggests the narrator wishes the family had allowed the boy to finish early to enjoy himself. Frost thinks the family was into work at all costs.]

‘the half hour that a boy counts so much when saved from work…’
[This factual image suggests the poet understands how a boy needs his own free time to enjoy himself. Frost thinks the family was into work at all costs.]

‘His sister stood beside them in her apron to tell them 'Supper'…’
[This factual image shows that another child had to do the main domestic chores. The image of the apron shows she had to work hard also.]

‘he swung toward them holding up the hand
half in appeal’
[This factual image shows that the boy felt he had let down his parents and that they might give out to him. His upright hand is a gesture seeking forgiveness as much as help. Note that Frost did not show his parents rushing to help him.]

‘big boy doing a man's work, though a child at heart’.
[This is the third factual image that suggests the poet understands that it was unnatural to overwork the boy. Frost thinks the family over-used their son and deprived or robbed him of his childhood.]

‘Don't let him, sister!'
[This factual image shows that the boy identified with his sister, and relied on her protection.]

‘the watcher at his pulse took fright….’
[This factual image shows that maybe a neighbour and not a family member attended the dying boy’s bedside. It is a cold image and shows lack of humanity.]

‘No one believed. They listened at his heart’.
[This factual image shows the boy’s family had neither worried at the accident nor supported the boy in his ordeal.]

‘And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’
[This factual image shows the boy’s family were hard-hearted. They didn’t love him enough to grieve for him. Farm-work took priority over emotional loss.]

There is a dramatic image of the boy’s hand and the saw making contact. This contact is compared to a meeting, an appointment, a conference or get-together. To compare a physical contact to a meeting in this way is a metaphor. Because the event was so violent, the metaphor is ironic. It is an under-statement to compare a saw ripping bone and flesh to a meeting or appointment. It is personification to say that neither a saw nor a hand ‘refused’.
‘He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting.’

There are eight medical images:

‘life…spilling…’
[This is a factual image of bleeding to death]

'Don't let him cut my hand off, the doctor…’
[This is a factual image of a doctor amputating the hand]

‘But the hand was gone already…’
[This is a factual image of the hand nearly cut off by the saw]

‘The doctor put him in the dark of ether…’
[This is a metaphorical image of the doctor putting the boy asleep for the amputation. The unconscious state of the boy is compared to ‘dark’.]

‘He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath...’
[This is a factual image of the unconscious and dying boy making puffing noises as he breathed]

‘ the watcher at his pulse took fright…’
[This is a cold factual image of an unnamed or anonymous person nursing him]

‘ They listened at his heart’.
[This is a factual image of his family listening for a heartbeat when the boy died.]

‘Little—less— nothing! –and that ended it’.
[This is a factual image of the pulse and heartbeat fading at the moment of death]


Sound effects

Alliteration
[Alliteration is the repetition of first letters.]
Note the three ‘s’ sounds in this quote:
‘Sweet-scented stuff’.
This sound helps to emphasise the ‘scent’ of the timber being cut.

Note the three ‘t’ sounds of
‘there those that’ in the quote
‘and from there those that lifted eyes could count
five mountain ranges’.
Note the second alliteration of ‘c’ in ‘could count’.
These repetitions help to emphasise the monotonous life of those who ignore the view.
Find many more examples in the poem yourself.

Assonance
[Assonance is repetition of vowels.]
Note five various ‘a’ vowels in this line. In particular note the four ‘a’ vowels that sound like the ‘a’ of ‘saw’:
‘The buzz-saw snarled and rattled in the yard’.
This assonance emphasises the sound of the sawing machine. Overall, this line has other sounds like ‘s’, ‘z’ and ‘r’ that imitate the sound of sawing machine. Thus the line is a good example of onomatopoeia.

Consonance
[Consonance is repetition of consonant sounds.]
Note the fifty-eight ‘r’ sounds in the poem.
This repetition emphasises the angry and irritating din of the machine saw. Consonance is also a musical effect.
Find more yourself.

Sibilance
[Sibilance is repetition of ‘s’ sounds. It is consonance involving ‘s’.].
Note the five ‘s’ sounds in this line:
‘Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it’.
This sibilance emphasises the spreading of the scent in the breeze. It creates a musical effect.

Rhyming
There isn’t a regular rhyming scheme. There is a small amount of rhyming. The third and third last lines rhyme with ‘it’. The word ‘other’ in line four half rhymes with ‘ether’ in line twenty-eight. Lines eighteen and twenty end in ‘hand’.
Otherwise this is a blank verse paragraph.

Internal Rhyme
[Internal Rhyme is a word or sound rhyming within a line]
Note how the long sound ‘the’ occurs three times in this line:
‘No more to build on there. And they, since they’.

Note the repetition of ‘snarled and rattled’ in this line:
‘And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled’.
This repetition emphasises the angry and varying sound of the sawing machine.
Find one of the many more examples of internal rhyme.

Cross Rhyme
[Cross Rhyme is a word or sound rhyming across two or more lines]

Note how ‘the hand’ is repeated on both lines of this quote:
‘He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!’
In the first line, the sound ‘h’ begins four words. This is also alliteration. All these repetitions emphasise the word ‘hand’. This word is central to the poem.
Note that the word ‘hand’ occurs six times in the poem on different lines.

Note that the key word ‘boy’ occurs six times in the poem on different lines.
Note that the key word ‘saw’ occurs six times in the poem on different lines.

Rhythm
The rhythm is very important in this poem.
Read the note on Rhythm for Mending Wall’ At first, there is a regular rhythm created by the four beats per line. Each line is clear and unbroken. Some lines are run-on lines. This provides a fluent regular rhythm Lines four, five and six are one fluent sentence. This creates perfect rhythm and complements or adds to the description of beautiful mountains. When you voice the poem, most lines have a four tempo beat.
For example, the first line has ten syllables, but the human voice breaks it down into the following four units of spoken sound, or four beats:
‘The buzz-saw… snarled… and rattled… in the yard’.
[three syllables…one syllable…three syllables…three syllables]
Note the four units of sound that the voice divides the line into. This is the tempo or beat of the line. In each beat, there is one stressed or loud syllable.
Note that the word ‘snarled’ has one syllable as the ‘a’ melts into the ‘rle’ while ‘rattled’ has two distinct syllables, ‘rat’ and ‘tled’—pronounced ‘teld’.

In line seven, the rhythm changes. There are eleven syllables and the human voice breaks it down into five units of spoken sound, or five beats:
‘And the saw… snarled… and rattled… snarled …and rattled’.
[three syllables…one syllable… three syllables…one syllable… three syllables]
Note the five units of sound that the voice divides the line into. This is the tempo or beat of the line. In each beat, there is one stressed or loud syllable.

This change of tempo or beat resembles the changing rhythm of the saw indicated by the meaning of the words.

Early in the poem, the run on lines and everyday phrases help make the poem seem very natural to the ear. The two long run-on sentences in the first six lines give the poem a fluent or smooth quality. The poet is describing a typical rural scene with its sweet smell and beautiful backdrop.
From line seven to ten, each line is broken in the middle with a caesura. Full stops, commas and colons in the middle of a line create a pause, known as a caesura, in the middle of the line. Pauses are quite common in everyday speaking. Pauses give the poem a natural feel.
In ‘Out Out’, the pauses in the rhythm emphasise the meaning. These pauses slow the rhythm at certain times to show feelings of tension, irritation or danger. The rhythm of the saw is irregular and changeable due to the boy’s inexperience in using it. The pauses also show the broken rhythm of the saw as it battles to cut materials of different thickness.
Thus, the rhythm is also changeable due to the resistance of the material. Shortly, by line sixteen, the saw’s rhythm breaks down completely when the accident happens.
From this point on in the poem, the rhythm of the lines matches the crisis in the boy’s life. Lines thirty to thirty-two are typical of the lines from line sixteen to the end of the poem:
‘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 rhythm is completely shattered, like the boy’s life. Frost deliberately ‘spoiled’ the rhythm with his punctuation. There are eight pauses caused by punctuation in these lines. The middle line of this quote is very striking, with three caesuras and a concluding exclamation mark. It also has four beats:
‘The doctor…when he comes…Don't let him…sister!'
In this line, each beat is interrupted by the punctuation.
This broken rhythm imitates the wayward or wild pulse and fading life of the injured and broken boy as he bleeds to death.
The brevity or shortness of the boy’s remaining life is indicated by the short word ‘so’ and the pause in rhythm after saying it. It is a one-syllable statement.
Look closely at some of the other lines and you will see more examples of rhythm matching meaning.

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