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 them 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.
Background to the poem
The poem begins by depicting the dominant presence of the buzz‑saw before dwelling on the landscape for several lines. The focus then returns to personifying the saw that ‘snarled and rattled’, introducing a sense of menace and danger to the poem. Even so, there is also an atmosphere of work coming to an end and relaxation as the boy’s sister comes out to call him in for ‘Supper’.
At this moment the fatal accident happens. How does Frost describe the moment when the boy’s hand is caught by the saw, and the boy’s reaction? What do you think of the tone of the poem in this section, lines sixteen to twenty‑six?
The doctor cannot save the boy and the last seven lines record the boy slipping into death while those around him ‘turned to their affairs’. Consider the tone of the ending. Is it deliberately and ironically detached?
It has been suggested that, as the poem was written during the First World War, it might be a commentary on the destruction of innocence and the callous disregard for life seen in this war.
The title is a reference to Macbeth and his response to his wife’s death, ‘Out, out brief candle…’
About Robert Frost
Robert Frost was a dominant figure in American cultural life in the first half of the twentieth century. On his death in 1963 President Kennedy talked about Frost leaving behind him ‘imperishable verse’ that gives ‘joy and understanding’.
Frost first volumes of poetry were published in New England but he became a more widely known poet when he moved for a few years to England and met poets such as Ezra Pound and Robert Graves.
Frost believed that a perfect poem was a fusion of emotion and thought. It is the lucid combination of feeling and intellect in his poems that helped him become so successful and ensured the popularity of poems such as ‘The Road Not Taken’. While skilfully handling traditional verse forms, he captured the rhythms and texture of ordinary language. He delighted in the rural landscape of New England but could also explore profound issues of life and death with gravity and wit.
Read more about Robert Frost in the
American National Biography