Robert Frost

Poem: ‘Out, Out—’
Poet: Robert Frost

At the outset, I must acknowledge a debt to several friends with whom I read and discussed this poem tonight. The insights (if such they are) I recount below are as much theirs as mine.

I first encountered this poem well over a year ago now, but only this evening did I quite grasp it. On the surface, the poem tells the grim and brutal story of a boy’s injury and death. As a telling of that story, it is gripping and horrifying, well told, and a good poem. But in fact that is merely the occasion for the real poem.

What is the real poem? Start with the title: ‘Out, Out—‘. This is an allusion to Shakespeare’s famous “out, out, damned spot,” from Macbeth, famous because it expresses so concisely and yet so forcefully Lady Macbeth’s overpowering guilt. This title clues us in that the narrator of this poem is not some outside observer who just happens to know what has happened. No, the observer is someone who was involved in that day’s fateful events, and who feels he could have prevented it from happening.

Once this is recognized, small cracks in the objectivity of the storytelling start to show through. When the narrator says, “Call it a day, I wish they might have said,” we can now recognize the thin illusion of distance that the “they” creates. For the narrator really meant, “I wish I might have said.” It is doubly depersonalized, changed to the third person for one, changed to the plural for two. This same “they” recurs throughout, but now we know better.

The scene in Macbeth in which Lady Macbeth makes her famous, despairing cry is, as I recall it, hardly subtle. She proclaims her guilt openly. Frost’s poem captures a rather different kind of guilt. The narrator is not a murderer. He is not even morally culpable in any real sense. What could he reasonably have been expected to do differently? Nothing, of course. But that doesn’t stop the brain from imagining what might have been done differently.

Because it is a different sort of guilt, it calls for a different kind of expression. The narrator tries, with every trick he has, to suppress it. Had he fully succeeded, there would be no poem. But he fails, and his failure is the poem’s success.

Poem: Out, Out–
Poet: Robert Frost

A quiet metrical armada haunts
Frost’s haunting poem, fleet lurches in time
That ripple o’er the smooth surface of sound,
Faint echoes of a meaning else disclosed.
Hark: as the saw stretches to greet its mark,
A double iamb lights on the boy’s hand,
Or seems to light – perhaps it welled up from
The hand itself, and could not but roost there.
This violent pause, this vicious, snarling halt,
How it rattles the ear, startles the tongue!
And listen for the shift in breath: the lope
Of lines that hold each pause apart gives way
To labored heaves. The poor boy puffs in puffs.
His heart stutters in stutters. Cruel author;
Unfeeling God! You torture the child so.
Listen, too, for the muted rhyme that skulks
About the close, the hint of beauty lurking
In the midst of death and disregard.
And mid this lack of care, the final lurch,
Or rather, regularity: for the last
Of wretched wrenches is no wrench at all.
The others, as they turn to their affairs,
Must leave the dead to death. See: there he lies,
A bed of iambs houses the unstressed dead.

Title: Mowing
Author: Robert Frost

I thought I would say a bit more about the ways in which Robert Frost turns the sonnet form to his advantage in “Mowing”. I neglected to mention, in my initial thoughts, an intriguing way in which Frost plays off reader’s expectations in the final two lines. This feature of the poem is worthy of discussion.

The Shakespearian sonnet ends with a heroic couplet, which, properly executed, makes for a pithy, punchy finale. It invites the poet to condense the first twelve lines into a moral, often of a satirical nature. The couplet is ripe for generalizing but, even if particular, it still has the feeling of a punchline, as in these lines from Shakespeare’s first sonnet:

Pity the world, or else this glutton be,
To eat the world’s due, by the grave and thee.

“Mowing” simultaneously has and lacks a couplet. The rhyme scheme of the final two lines is FG, so it is not a true heroic couplet. Nonetheless, the first twelve lines consist of two sentences of six lines apiece, while each of the final two lines is a sentence of its own. There is thus the trace of the couplet structure. Moreover, line thirteen has the feel of a Shakespearian couplet: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Here is the moral to be drawn from all that came above, and we await its completion in the following line.

This expectation is frustrated, however, for the next line drops us back into the scene of mowing as it draws to a close. The scythe finishes its whisper and leaves the hay to make. The lack of rhyme (within the couplet, I mean) only enhances this disconnect. This is the masterstroke that makes the poem, for Frost with this move takes us out of the general and back to the particular, back to the fact just praised. The poem does not reward us with intellectual contentment of an empty sort (now I have grasped the point; I may be done here). It forces us to embody its moral if we are to enjoy it. At the same time, the narrator is further effaced, for the generality of line thirteen is a contribution of the narrator and not of the scythe, and in that regard is something extraneous.

A brief note of prelude. I am reading The Voice that is Great Within Us, an anthology of twenti­eth century American poetry gathered by Hayden Carruth, and my intent is to make at least one post on each poet featured, if only, at least in the worst case, to note my dislike thereof. These posts will be gathered here. Onward.

Title: Mowing
Author: Robert Frost

“Mowing” stands out first for its greatness, but second for its structure. The former is best admired silently; the form is thus my subject here. “Mowing” is a sonnet, but not in either the Italian or the Shakespearian mode. Nor is it in the less common Spenserian mode. Rather, it utilizes a nonce rhyme scheme that effectively complements the meaning of the poem.

What is noteworthy about the Italian, Shakespearian, and Spenserian sonnets is that they all create natural subdivisions within the work through their rhyme scheme. The Italian sonnet creates an obvious octet/sestet division, with a lesser division of the octet into two quatrains. The Shakespearian sonnet, by contrast, gives us three quatrains and a couplet: each quatrain introduces and fully resolves a unique set of rhymes (ABAB followed by CDCD, etc.). The Spenserian sonnet lets the rhymes run over between quatrains (ABAB followed by BCBC, etc.), but each quatrain can nonetheless function as a stand-alone unit.

“Mowing” works differently. The rhyme scheme, in full, is: ABCABDECDFEGFG. This has two interesting properties. First, it forbids any subdivision into units. There is never a point, before the poem’s end, at which all rhymes thus far introduced have been resolved. Thus, for instance, the opening ABC is not fully resolved before Frost has introduced D and E, and this too is not resolved until Frost gives us F. Second, with the exception of G, the resolution of each rhyme comes at least three lines after its introduction, and C takes five lines to resolve.

These two features of form have two attendant, complementary effects. The lack of units gives the poem a powerful forward thrust, never letting it reach any hard stops. Even though there are periods after lines six and twelve (suggesting a division into two sestets), the need for resolution of the rhymes each leaves open keeps the poem traipsing onward. This effect is especially potent after line six, since the ABCAB scheme of the first five lines creates the expectation of a C in line six, which expectation is frustrated until line eight. The second effect is that the presence of rhymes in the poem is unobtrusive, so much so that on my first reading I didn’t even realize it was rhymed until I reached the end.

One last formal feature of the poem is worth noting: Frost’s use of numerous anapestic substitutions. The opening two feet of the poem (“there was never a sound”) are both anapests, which sets the tone, and I count seventeen total anapestic substitutions (nine in the first four lines), not counting the two line-opening trochaic substitutions (lines five and nine) that create a quasi-anapestic effect. (These two trochees are the only other substitutions in the poem.) This steadily disrupts the regular drum of iambs characteristic of a standard sonnet, giving the lines a loose, relaxed feel.

All of this perfectly serves the meaning of the poem. Frost drops us into a scene of a man hand-mowing grass, listening to the whish of the scythe through the grass and wondering what that whisper might signify. It is not a wish to be elsewhere (“It was no dream of the gift of idle hours”), nor is it a desire for some reward (“or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf”). Instead, it is a pure being in the moment, an expression of the scythe’s love of the grass, the pale orchises, the bright green snake. The narrator himself is nearly effaced from this moment, a mere spectator observing it from afar, recording what he sees. The form of the poem echoes this effacement: it too recedes into the background. The anapests make the iambic rhythm, still technically dominant, harder to hear, but without being obtrusive in the way heavy trochaic substitutions would be. The rhyme scheme makes the rhymes fade into the background, present, but not prominent, while the onward pulse it provides preserves the unity of the scene.

As a result, “Mowing” is an intricately structured poem that hides its form at every turn. Thus we, as readers, sink into the scene itself, not noticing (at first) the highly contrived manner in which it is presented. It is an example of supremely talented artifice, so talented that we hardly notice it is there.