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Robert Frost

Out, Out—

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


American author Robert Frost’s narrative poem “‘Out, Out—’” first appeared in 1916 in Frost’s third poetry collection, Mountain Interval. While Frost emerged during the Modernist period of the early 20th century, readers debate whether his work typifies that movement. A Formalist, Frost wrote in traditional meter and usually with a rhyme scheme, while most of his Modernist contemporaries had ventured into free verse (See: Literary Devices). In terms of content, however, Frost’s work often confronts the same issues that concerned most Modernists, such as finding meaning in a world grown more chaotic through disruptions in traditional social and cultural structures.

“‘Out, Out—’” tells the story of the accidental death of a farm boy. Despite the subject matter, the poem is difficult to categorize into traditional genres concerning death, such as the elegy or the dirge. Nevertheless, it contemplates the fragile relation between life and death, both historically and in the present. The poem’s tone is apropos to the subject matter—somber and stoic but also bitterly ironic.

“‘Out, Out—’” is one of the most anthologized and analyzed works by one of the most celebrated American poets of his century, and certainly one of the most significant poets in American literary history.

Poet Biography

Robert Frost was born in 1874 in San Francisco, California. Following the death of his father in 1885, the family moved to New England, a setting that would become central to much of his work. He was an avid reader, particularly of Palgrave’s anthology Golden Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics (1861), the contents of which undoubtedly influenced his own poetry. He entered Dartmouth College in 1886 but left before the end of the year due to boredom. He worked in numerous capacities—factory worker, journalist, teacher—but nothing long term. He landed some poems in small publications and married Elinor White in 1895. Over the next several years, he briefly attended Harvard, conducted more teaching, and worked a farm he inherited, all while publishing occasionally but without great success.

In 1912, Frost moved his family to England, determining to work at his writing full time and to become associated with the vibrant literary scene there. Soon afterward, he published his first book, A Boy’s Will (1913). It received many good reviews, most notably by Ezra Pound, and was followed by the collection North of Boston (1914), also reviewed favorably. These two volumes contain some of Frost’s most popular poems, such as “Storm Fear,” “Mowing,” “Mending Wall,” “Death of the Hired Man,” “Home Burial,” “After-Apple Picking,” and “The Wood-Pile.”

Returning to the United States in 1915, Frost started a career writing, teaching, and lecturing, which he pursued for the remainder of his life. His next two volumes of new poetry, Mountain Interval (1916) and New Hampshire (1923) contain some of his most anthologized poems: “The Road Not Taken,” “Birches,” “‘Out, Out—,’” “Fire and Ice,” “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” This latter volume earned Frost his first Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, and he would win three more for Collected Poems (1931), A Further Range (1937), and A Witness Tree (1943). As of 2022, he is the only author to be awarded four Pulitzer Prizes for Poetry. Among his many other honors, Frost was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal (1960), he recited at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, he was named poet laureate of Vermont (1961), and he won the Bollingen Prize (1963).

Frost led a unique poetic career in that he became a public figure known beyond literary circles. His approachable style, his natural settings, and his commonplace characters and circumstances all made him popular with casual readers, and he took advantage of that reception to appear at lectures and media appearances as a stoic yet genteel sage. However, literary critics are quick to assert that his best work engages with the same issues of existential angst pervasive in Modernist poetry. That he could do so with both colloquial diction and strict adherence to traditional form testifies to his unique poetic stature. Frost died in 1963.

Poem Text

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.

Frost, Robert. “‘Out, Out—.’” 1916. Academy of American Poets.


Most of the poem’s action takes place in a farmyard. Someone, not yet identified, uses a buzz saw to cut stove wood. The speaker is anonymous and stands outside the scene, either as an observer or as someone imaginatively reconstructing the events; they remark that the saw “snarled and rattled” (Line 1), the smell of the sawdust pleasantly “[s]weet-scented]” (Line 3). The scenery is beautiful, consisting of “[f]ive mountain ranges one behind the other / Under the sunset far into Vermont” (Lines 5-6). At the farmyard, the work is routine, and the day is almost over.

The speaker first reports that a boy is among the workers. The speaker wishes that the workers might have ended work early in order “[t]o please the boy by giving him the half hour / That a boy counts so much when saved from work” (Lines 11-12). The boy’s sister enters the farmyard to tell the workers that supper is ready. The saw, appearing to understand speech, “seem[s] to leap” (Line 16) at the mention of supper. However, the boy “must have given the hand” (Line 17); the boy’s hand is fully severed. In shock he holds his hand up, as though in a vain attempt to stop the bleeding. Though young, the boy is old enough to understand the seriousness of the wound, a “big boy / Doing a man’s work, though a child at heart” (Lines 23-24). He makes a futile appeal to his sister not to allow the doctor to amputate the wounded hand, but it is too late: “the hand was gone already” (Line 27).

The scene shifts to the surgery, where the boy is anesthetized and monitored. Unexpectedly, his heartbeat grows faint and stops. The others can do nothing for him now, and “since they / Were not the one dead” (Lines 33-34), they go back to business.