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:
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.“