[Close Reading Rainbow Part 3] Heartless Reactions to a Boy and a Buzz Saw: “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost

Robert Frost was an American modernist poet and playwright who wrote and published his work from the early 1910s to his death in the early 1960s. He is praised for his command of the English language through his use of colloquialisms (common speech) in his writing. Many of his poems are set in rural settings and describe life outside of the city. Frost’s most well-known poem is one that is used during essentially every single graduation/convocation speech: “The Road Not Taken.” Though this poem is uplifting and thought provoking in its tone and intention, some of Frost’s poetry is as thought provoking as they are violent and disturbing. One of these poems is his 1916 poem “Out, Out—”. To understand the gravity of this poem, here it is in its entirety:

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.

After frightfully watching and listening to the boy’s penultimate pulse leading to the final beat, the adults that surround him seemingly get up and go about their affairs without any real thought regarding the ill fate of the child. Upon first reading, the poem “Out, Out—” by Robert Frost seems to end leaving the reader standing in a dismal deluge of disinterest and disconnection. However, through understanding the purpose behind the tonal shift between the first twenty-two lines and the last three lines, the reader can see that the apparent apathy isn’t heartless, but rather a natural, more mature response to a very tragic death.

As a beginning move, the speaker describes a cozy, idyllic, rural scene in the opening six lines, which provides the reader with a sense of innocence and security. The saw in the yard, “drop[s] stove-length sticks of wood,” that are described as “Sweet scented stuff when the breeze [blows] across it” (ll. 2-3). The sticks produced by the saw will inevitably be used to warm the home and provide comfort to all those who reside therein. There is a calmness about the yard and the home despite the “snarl[ing]” and “ratt[ling]” of the saw (ll. 1). The voice of the saw is just noise in the background of what should be a perfectly fine day. We get the image of a rural Vermont surrounded by “Five mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset” (ll. 5-6). The setting established in these introductory lines allows the reader to feel at home. There is protection. The mountains act as a natural barrier, giving the yard a safe-and-sound sort of vibe. The only image that is disconcerting is that of the saw as it “snarl[s] and rattle[s], snarl[s] and rattle[s]” (ll. 7).

The saw’s rattling and snarling hums in opposition to the calmness and homeliness of the wooded compound and creates an uneasiness that culminates in the rather forceful amputation of the boy’s hand. In accordance with the comfort of the wooded enclosure, the boy possesses a naivety that protects him from understanding the danger and gravity of the saw. This innocence can be seen in the way that the interaction between the boy and the saw is portrayed. Rather than being a grotesque and awful scene of confusion and gore, when the boy’s hand meets the saw, the whole ordeal is shown as something comparable to an animal jumping at the boy. The saw is given animal characteristics, in addition to the snarling and rattling, in that it is described as “Leap[ing] out at the boy’s hand” (ll. 16). It’s almost as if the saw is some sort of snake, lashing out at some unsuspecting passerby. Though the saw is seen as a sort of snake, the speaker interjects saying, “or seemed to leap,” leaving the reader a bit disjointed (ll. 16). This disconnect allows the reader the chance to question the perspective of the child. It also acts as a catalyst for the reader to come to terms with the reaction of the adults at the end of the poem.

The boy’s perspective, in addition to the image of the saw as a snake, gives the remainder of the poem, up until the last three lines, a tone of innocence taken away. The boy is described as “giv[ing] the hand” to the saw, almost as if it were some sort of offering (ll. 17). When the hand is accepted by the saw, the boy lets out a “rueful laugh” (ll. 19). The juxtaposition of these two words gives the reader a conflicted image. Rueful and laugh are almost absolutely opposite of one another. The “outcry” of the boy is something of a sorrowful laugh. This image, in relation to the uncertain tone that the speaker employs earlier on, shows that although the boy might have thought that he knew what he was doing when he offered his hand to saw, he really had no clue what he as getting himself into. The bucolic background bursts before the readers’ eyes. The boy holds his hand “as if to keep the life from spilling” out of the wound that now occupies where his hand once was.

The boy loses his innocence and his knowledge regarding danger and pain allows him to be like the rest of the people that end up surrounding his deathbed. He possesses, or at least seems to possess, all knowledge beforehand, yet when he is disarmed “[he sees] all—” (ll. 22).  He wanted to be a “big boy” although he wasn’t old enough to be using the saw to begin with (23). His innocence is “spoiled” and he is thrown into confusion as he cries for his sister to tell the doctor to not “cut [his] hand off—” (ll. 25). Despite his desire to keep the hand unspoiled, “the hand was gone already” (ll. 27). He is left with no hand, and the people around him show little to no emotion toward his sudden, tragic end. Although this is very tragic, the adults understand that the saw wasn’t a snake. It wasn’t something that a boy of his age should have been playing with. They aren’t sad that he is gone, but they are sad that he had to learn the hard way that when children get too close to snakes, they will get attacked.

This shift in tone from calmness and homeliness to the confusion of the boy and the subsequent apathetic attitudes of the adults allows the reader to see that the attitude seen by these people isn’t one that should be deplored. The adults understand that there is nothing that they can do to bring the child back. It is true that “No one believed” that he could pass so quickly, yet everyone knew that the saw was dangerous. As a group of rural residents, their lives are most likely based on surviving. The boy exhibited ineptitude in the realm of survival. He was dead as a result of his actions and the as a result of the adults’ awareness of such a consequence, they knew that there was “No more to build on there” (ll. 33). They understand that in nature, although one might be encircled and protected by mountains and foliage, if someone dies as a result of their own actions, it is not their affair and shouldn’t be something to trouble them further.

What are your thoughts? Are the adults heartless? Is nature unforgiving and uncaring as some writers like Frost describe it to be? What can be said about the response of the adults as opposed to the children? What does that say about innocence between adults and children? Leave your responses in the comments below! Thank you, and see you next week where I will be looking at Julio Cortazar’s story “The Night Face Up.

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“It is the Same” – The Sameness of Change in Shelley’s “Mutability”

BY PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY
                                         I.
We are as clouds that veil the midnight moon;
    How restlessly they speed and gleam and quiver,
Streaking the darkness radiantly! yet soon
Night closes round, and they are lost for ever:—
                                         II.
Or like forgotten lyres whose dissonant strings
    Give various response to each varying blast,
To whose frail frame no second motion brings
    One mood or modulation like the last.
                                        III.
We rest—a dream  has power to poison sleep;
    We rise—one wandering thought pollutes the day;
We feel, conceive or reason, laugh or weep,
Embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away:—
                                       IV.
It is the same!—For, be it joy or sorrow,
    The path of its departure still is free;
Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow;
    Nought may endure but Mutability.

In Percy Bysshe Shelley’s “Mutability”, the speaker explores the tension that is experienced as a result of change; this change is seen in nature in the first four lines, music in the next four lines, emotion in the following four lines, and finally the speaker resolves the conflict in the concluding quatrain by expressing that “It is the same” (ll. 13). Although this seems to be a strange conclusion to come to considering the contrasting and oftentimes combating conundrums within the quatrains, it is in fact the only fitting final thought that can ultimately untie the knot and alleviate the pressure that is contained within each line. Through creating tension with contrasting imagery within the same lines, Shelley adeptly accentuates the truth that change, whether it be drastic or subtle, is a part of our existence as humans that must be reconciled with.

As an introduction into the tension surrounding change, the speaker utilizes the image of a cloud covering the moon as a way to show the mutability inherent in nature. The opening line expresses the idea that we are “as clouds that veil the midnight moon” (ll. 1). This picture has within it subtle tension with the use of the verb veil. The clouds are in motion, but the speed of this motion is slow, and uncertain. It isn’t until the following line that the speed of the motion is revealed to the reader. The tension increases with the addition of descriptors like how the clouds speed “restlessly” (ll. 2). The clouds aren’t just slowly veiling the moon; they are rapidly shrouding it. This creates a feeling of encroaching darkness and gives the reader a sensation of claustrophobia. The light created by the moon is being cloaked by the incoming cloud cover.

Although there is definite dissonance in the movement of the clouds across the moon, the speaker deepens this dissonance through contrasting light and dark. Normally, when clouds cover the moon the light is squelched behind a veil. This is not so in this case. The light of the moon “gleam[s], and quiver[s]” (ll. 2). The light is still present, but it quivers with the coming of the clouds. Tension rises in the following line as the clouds “[streak] the darkness radiantly!” (ll. 3). The juxtaposition of the streaking of darkness radiantly propels the pressure created by the contradicting wording until the tension is finally released in the last line of the quatrain: “yet soon / Night closes round, and they are lost forever” (ll. 3-4). The contrast of light and dark and the way in which the light, oftentimes white, clouds act as an agent of streaking the darkness creates and exhibits the tension that comes with changes in nature visually.

The changes that occur in the physical world, as addressed in the first quatrain, are heightened as the speaker continues their exploration of mutability in the realm of music and sound. In the first quatrain, the reader receives a visual representation of dissonance; the second quatrain examines auditory mutability. The speaker tells of “forgotten lyres, whose dissonant strings / Give various response to each varying blast” (ll. 5-6). The tension in the first two lines of the quatrain is heard through the words “forgotten,” “dissonant,” “various,” and “varying.” These sounds were once audible yet forgotten. The audio-memory of the lyre and the music that was once played thereon is fading further into memory. This image elicits a tone of sad longing for a half-remembered tonal memory that, just like the clouds covering the moon, will soon be “lost forever” (ll. 4). Rather than using contradicting phrasing like that of the first quatrain, the speaker builds upon the tension through compounding the melancholic mood by describing the “various response[s]” of the lyre as possessing a “frail frame” that is constantly changing with no “mood or modulation [being] like the last” (ll. 6-8). The tension isn’t totally resolved with the final line of the quatrain, for it is made more manifest through the motion of the mood and modulation, which perpetuates the pressure presented in the first two quatrains of the poem.

The perpetuation of pressure is proclaimed in the opening two lines of the third quatrain, as it is in the first quatrain, through creating cacophony in each individual action in the line. The speaker suggests that “We rest,” connoting that rest is a natural human experience. The complication surfaces immediately following the dash: “– A dream has power to poison sleep” (ll. 9). Although sleep is something that we all do, there is a potentially dangerous element of slumber that has the power to poison. Likewise, in the following line, the image of sleep is juxtaposed with the initial “We rise.” This rising, which usually holds within it a denotation of rebirth and redemption, is contrasted later in the line following the dash with, “– One wandering thought pollutes the day” (ll. 10). As compared to the previous two quatrains, the speaker condenses the tension like the spikes seen in that of a shrill noise captured in a microphone. This tension, although very much present in this quatrain, is short and more representative of the “varying blast[s]” described in the second quatrain (ll. 6).

The rest of the quatrain, which continues exploring dissonance in emotions, shortens the tension to an almost syllabic sensation, thus making for an even quicker and sharper conflict-resolution than the previous two lines. Instead of dividing the dissonance between one half of the line and the other, the tension is evident between neighboring words. “We feel,” the speaker states, “conceive or reason” (ll. 11). Each of these words are ways in which humans receive and perceive sensations. Although these words are used to describe sensations, each word is vastly different than the other. “Feel” connotes a response to physical sensations, “conceive” holds reference to a response to visual or audio sensations, and “reason” sides closer to the metaphysical response to sensations. Within the three verbs provided by the speaker, there is a lexical and connotational chasm that is concocted in the remainder of this line as well as the line following.

This dissonant divide in diction drives the tension further as the discord is directed and focused more fully in the final three words of the line: “laugh or weep” (ll. 11). These two basic human emotive actions are on completely opposite sides of the spectrum, yet they are pressed together tightly like the positive sides of two magnets. These magnetic forces of expression, when pushed together literally or metaphorically, cover the chasm constructed in the beginning of the line with a taut rope that eventually allows the reader to cross the deep without the fear of falling to one side of the other. Though not entirely concluded, the speaker admonishes the reader to “embrace fond woe, or cast our cares away,” suggesting that the reader has the ability to choose whether they will embrace the mutability of physical nature and human nature, or to cast it away (ll. 12).

Regardless of what the reader will do after being shown the sheer shakiness surrounding the unstable and mutable nature of all things, the speaker provides the reader with comfort knowing that “It is the same!” (ll. 13). The speaker exclaims that “be it joy or sorrow, / The path of its departure still is free,” suggesting that though pressure is presented in the poem, as well as in the lives of the individual readers, the capability to resolve the tension is ultimately left in the hands of the reader. They are free to view the tension however they would like to. They can see it as sorrow or joy, and they can react to it by laughing or weeping. Either way, it is the same! The way in which the conflict is resolved depends solely on how each individual reader chooses to alleviate it.

To further complicate the constant stream of cacophony, the speaker concludes by claiming that the only constant in life, whether that’s physical life (as is evident in the example of the moon and the lyre in the first and second quatrains) or metaphysical life (evidenced by the emotional and existential elements evoked in the third and fourth quatrains), is mutability itself. The speaker simply concedes that “Man’s yesterday may ne’er be like his morrow,” hearkening back to the notion of “no second motion bring[ing] / One mood or modulation like the last” in the second quatrain (ll. 15, 8). No day in the past, present, or future can ever be exactly the same ever. Clouds will always cover moons, the music of long-forgotten lyres will always fade into the fog of memory, and human emotions will fluctuate as frequently as syllables succumb to succeeding syllables in a poem.

The speaker releases the pressure that has thus far been congregating in the previous fifteen lines of the poem by reiterating that the only constant character in the conundrum of choices surrounding tension is mutability itself. As the speaker states, and as Shelley strives to suggest through his utilization of contrasting imagery within selfsame stanzas and lines throughout the poem, “Naught may endure but Mutability” (ll. 16). The capitalization of the word “Mutability” gives the idea and the action pertaining to the word an almost deity-like demeanor. By ending the poem with this God-like image, the necessity for accepting the changeable nature of things generally becomes more of a charge from on high than a challenge negatively charged with the impossibility of completion. Nothing can or will ever remain the same. Nature is in constant flux. The strings of a lyre will oftentimes be discordant and out of tune. Human emotions will forever, frequently find themselves frazzled in the fray of feelings. Yet, it is through understanding the need for tension in existence that the reader is able to truly come to terms with the constant creation and resolution of tension in the poem and in their own lives.