Guy Rotella: On "‘Out, Out—’"
Frost's “ ‘Out, Out—’ ”16 might seem an admissible exhibit in support of Ramazani's compelling case that the anti-elegiac modern poetry of mourning permanently keeps open the psychic injuries conventional elegies struggle to heal, and only in part because Frost's poem chillingly describes a fatal wounding. “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” not only cuts off elegy's usual conversion of mourning to solace, it seems to amputate grief itself, as if in the absence of reliable comfort sorrow is severed: the poem's abrupt conclusion and relentless past tense nearly nullify the present and future on which mourning and consolation depend. A boy had been helping to cut up firewood on a buzz saw. From the poem's outset the saw snarled and rattled with premonitory menace, but initially it also participated in the nearly idyllic domestic pattern the opening lines portray: a homely yard, cooperative engagement in productive labor, an atmosphere the scent of fresh-sawed wood makes “sweet,” the boy's sister coming companionably from the kitchen in her apron to call out “Supper”—all these details join the familiar vista of mountain ranges stretching westward in recessional rows beneath a setting sun to affirm the reliably stable continuities of rural life. Then, with an idyll-dispersing, confused and disruptive suddenness in which the saw seemed to leap at and the boy to give his hand, the boy's hand was “gone.” The implied (sociable) metaphor of lending a hand abruptly becomes a grisly fact, and the boy's place as a worker or “hand” in the rural community and economy he's inhabited is severed as well, irreversibly “spoiled.” All efforts made to save him fail. The candle of his life (“brief candle,” as the title's echo of Macbeth suggests) gutters and goes out. And, in the poem's curt last words, the boy's survivors, “since they / Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” Resounding again with the passage in Macbeth its title recalls, the poem's stark tale of sound and fury seems intent on signifying nothing: absolute zero, the substantive void where neither grief nor comfort resides.
This summary captures only the grimmest portion of the effect of Frost’s poem, however. The reportorial bluntness and clenched, near emotionless conclusion of “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” occlude but don’t totally obscure or cancel other tones of feeling the poem contains, and contains in part by allowing vestiges of elegy to operate within and against its anti-elegiac harshness. For instance, “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” often conveys a mournful tenderness toward the boy that counters its otherwise naturalistic, utilitarian, or stoic treatment of his premature death and his family's and community's briskly pragmatic reaction to it. The speaker's counterfactual “wish” that the other workers at the saw might have called it a day a little early in order “To please the boy by giving him the half hour / That a boy counts so much when saved from work,” for example, makes room, in a poem otherwise so committed to facts, for the inclusion of imaginative alternatives that are more as well as less than “realistic” (the sort of thing provided in a different register by the counter-factual phrases “I like to think” and “I should prefer to have” in “Birches,” a poem which appeared with “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” in Mountain Interval)17. Similarly, the brevity of half an hour measured against the many years of potential life cut off by the boy's early death intensifies as well as disciplines the strong consolatory, even preventative desire the speaker's wish reveals (as the degree of cold in the poem's conclusion might be understood not only to stifle grief but also to measure the amount of real sorrow that has to be repressed if the boy's death isn’t to consume his survivors as well). Other aspects of the boy's portrayal also add warmth to the poem's cooler concerns with tough-minded accuracy and pragmatic self-preservation: movingly affectionate terms show him as poised uncertainly at the threshold of maturity, for instance: “big boy / Doing a man's work, though a child at heart”; and the boy is also frankly admired for achieving an entirely adult comprehension of his circumstances in a way that belies his years: in the moments before his death, he apprehends in full the extent and finality of the personal and social implications of his injury. Sympathy for the boy is conveyed by his own desperate words, by the “fright” the “watcher at his pulse” experienced, and by the stunned disbelief of the observers who “listened at his heart” and heard no more than this irresistibly descending terminal progression: “Little—less—nothing!”
Those aspects of “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” ameliorate its anti-elegiac qualities. At the same time, it is probably too much to claim that the voices of brother and sister in the poem echo the antiphonal division of mourning voices traditional elegies employ, or that the poem's rows of mountain ranges reflect the processions of natural and other mourners in such works. And it's clear that no matter how much the presence of sympathetic feelings in Frost's poem partially restores to it the affect of sorrow it seems to suppress, “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” finally refuses to or simply cannot convert its grief into conventional elegy's standard compensatory solace. And yet for all that it remains the case that “ ‘Out, Out—’ ” has significant elegiac elements. The effect is especially strong in the poem's use of the generically charged word “turned” in its otherwise ashen final phrase, where the term functions as a vital vestige of elegy. A meta-elegiac gesture—or ember—it ignites to make us feel intensely, heatedly, the absence of the traditional presence the poem's deprivation denies: its lack of precisely the definitive counter-turn to warmer solace elegy could once be trusted to provide. Perhaps one outcome of this is to create in readers attuned to genre a sense of the divide between what a poet performing within an inherited kind or mode might do and what a poet performing as a reporter is constrained to do. In any event, as “‘Out, Out—’ ” turns away from elegy and elegiac consolation, it also recounts the dismal cost of not turning elsewhere, or of having nowhere else to turn. In this way, the poem challenges as well as confirms the preference for laconic stoicism it is often praised for, and it achieves some of the effect of paradox Shaw associates with elegy, a reaching toward a plane where skepticism and faith remain in difficult and bracing conversation rather than in a combat necessarily fatal to one or the other or both.