Growing up in rural Maine, I have spent many hours with my dad chopping and sawing firewood. Although I enjoy the work, I am also aware of the danger. One slip, and my ax might miss the chopping block, slicing through my lower leg. Or my saw might miss its groove in the wood, jump out and cut my arm in two.
It is just such dangers that Frost describes in one of his most viscerally powerful poems, “Out, Out –” (1916). The poem’s subject, a young boy, has been working long at cutting firewood with a buzz saw: “The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard / And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood.”
All seems tranquil until a slight interruption: The boy’s sister arrives to announce supper. At this unexpected proclamation, the boy’s concentration breaks — a fatal mistake: “At the word, the saw… / leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap — / He must have given the hand. However it was, / Neither refused the meeting.” And so the saw cuts the boy’s hand cleanly off, the red blood gushing forth from the stump of the arm.
I imagine that this boy, like me, takes pride in his labor. However, his work of sawing is also a vital task for his family’s survival. My dad and I do not need to cut our own firewood, as we can buy it from the local gas station. But the early 20th century situation of the boy is different: Without the wood he cuts, his family would have no defense against the bitter New England winter. Aware of this, the boy has exerted himself beyond his capability, taking on himself a task better suited for older men.
As the boy’s life fades rapidly away, Frost’s central message becomes starkly apparent. Despite our hard work, our life’s labors can be lost in one unexpected second: alive one minute, “Out, Out –” the next. And when misfortune strikes, we can only watch in horror. In momentary shock, Frost’s boy realizes everything is lost: “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.”
With just one tiny slip of the hand, success has transformed into disaster. Desperate to redeem himself, the boy’s thoughts turn to his severed hand, the instrument of his work, as he deliriously pleads with his sister to stop the doctor from amputating it: “Don’t let him cut my hand off.” But it is no use, as “the hand was gone already,” lying on the ground next to the freshly cut wood.
In this tableaux of agony, we can picture the boy’s life blood splashed on the freshly cut wood, the product of his long day’s labor. He cannot stop “the life from spilling” — it exits fast in one final burst of bloody vitality, the heart expending its dying energies on pumping blood out of severed arteries. And then it is all over — the wound unstaunched in time, the boy’s pulse fades and vanishes, “and that ended it.”
But Frost reserves his starkest message for last. The boy’s family easily moves on from his death, almost callous in their indifference: “And they, since they / were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.” In a similar vein to Frost’s “In a Disused Graveyard,” (1923) the boy’s tragic and soon-forgotten death emphasizes the transitory nature of earthly triumphs. In the end, all it takes is momentary negligence, and the boy’s vital woodcutting has come to naught. When I return to my own woodcutting this summer, I will take this message to heart and treasure every day of satisfying work accomplished, knowing it may be my last.