Meaning, Loss, and Mortality in ‘Out, Out -‘ and ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’
Throughout both poems, Frost approaches the theme of mortality both directly and indirectly, exploring not only the random, often violent nature of death, but even its dangerous appeal. ‘Out Out —’ deals with the former, choosing to question the romanticism often attributed to it through portraying the violent, accidental death of a young child. Undoubtedly influenced by the mass slaughter witnessed throughout the First World War, Frost’s portrayal of a narrator seeking to apply blame even to inanimate objects – such as the chainsaw – provides a metaphor for the search for meaning and direction when both are absent. Despite opting for a more structured, regular form (in terms of both verse and metre), ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ approaches death in a similar manner, developing an overriding sense of isolation which mirrors the response of the community in ‘Out Out —’ to the child’s death. Certainty and uncertainty are frequently juxtaposed throughout both poems, undermining any sense of assured knowledge and laying significant emphasis on humanity’s total powerlessness in the face of its own mortality. Crucially, however, whilst ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ does not attempt to ‘explain’ death to any extent, it suggests an acceptance of it that is not seen in the attempts of ‘Out Out —‘ to come to terms with the random, meaningless nature of mortality. In this way, therefore, the former can easily be seen as a development of the latter, marking Frost’s increasing acceptance of – even longing for – death. In their refusal to romanticise death, both poems choose to undermine the romantic movement of the late 19th century, instead reflecting an era of modernism in which, after the first world war had shaken much of the belief in religious and conservative values, the structures which underpinned contemporary society were beginning to deteriorate.
Through the use of a first person narrator, Frost gives both poems a distinctly human perspective, allowing him to fully explore humanity’s relationship with death: ‘Leaped out at the boy’s hand, or seemed to leap, / He must have given the hand.’ Here, in ‘Out Out —’, Frost’s use of personification in the repeated ‘leap’ gives the chainsaw some kind of malevolent intent – as if the the boy is a victim of an external force. Furthermore, the frequently repeated, strongly onomatopoeic phrase ‘snarled and rattled’ contains further connotations of violence, once again portraying the chainsaw as an intentionally harmful living creature. However, this attempt to divide the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ – the ‘victim’ from the ‘assailant’ – is clearly misguided, with the contrast between the certain connotations of ‘must’ and the doubtful ‘seemed’ serving to question the narrator’s ability to distinguish truth from invention. His fruitless attempts to apportion blame only emphasise the indiscriminate, often random nature of mortality; it is through this sense of randomness that death loses the higher meaning or significance that was frequently applied to it by the romantic poets. Frost’s use of a singular, unstructured stanza, particularly when combined with the lack of regular rhyme and metre, serves to reinforce the lack of stability and order seen throughout the poem, whilst the phrase ‘dropped stove length sticks of wood’ contributes strongly to the overall sense of purposelessness – he declines to mention the specific purpose of the action, focusing only on its immediate result (the somewhat vague ‘stove length sticks of wood’). The impersonal, almost passive connotations of ‘dropped’ again remove any sense of positive progress. The ideas of purposeless violence found throughout the poem, set against the backdrop of a fruitless search for moral accountability, most likely has its roots in the first world war; although the poem is not a direct metaphor for human conflict (its themes of powerlessness in the face of mortality are too universal to be limited to just ‘war’) the poem is perhaps an example of the first world war’s effect on attitudes towards death, bringing the fragility of human life into focus.
Similarly, Frost incorporates ideas of uncertainty into ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’: ‘Whose woods these are I think I know. / His house is in the village though’. Here, in the opening line of the poem, the direct juxtaposition of ‘I think’ to ‘I know’ again undermines the extent of human ‘knowledge’, stressing the narrator’s uncertainty as to the nature of mortality – unsubstantiated ideas (‘think’) are placed equal to factual ‘knowledge’ (‘know’). However, the owner of the ‘house’ is perhaps intended to be the personification of death, with the immediate connotations of ‘village’ suggesting a closer, more direct relationship with death than that seen in ‘Out Out —’, where mortality is portrayed as a detached, entirely arbitrary entity. The use of a regular rhyme scheme and stanza structure, combined with the consistent use of iambic tetrameter, contributes to a calmer, more contented tone of voice; written 8 years after ‘Out Out —’, this is perhaps indicative of an ageing Frost’s own increasing willingness to embrace mortality. Whilst both poems position humanity in a position of total subservience to death, it could be argued that, in each, Frost handles this position in different ways – where ‘Out Out —’ comments more upon the meaningless, often violent nature of mortality, ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ explores its dark attraction, describing the woods as ‘lovely, dark and deep’. Perhaps symbolic of death, the simultaneously alluring and threatening connotations of ‘dark and deep’ serve to clarify his feelings on mortality, expressing an odd desire for it without questioning his total ignorance of its nature.
However, through the links they draw between mortality and the natural world, both poems choose to further subvert the style of the romantic movement that dominated in previous years: ‘And from there those that lifted eyes could count / Five mountain ranges one behind the other / under the sunset far into Vermont’. Here, in ‘Out Out —’, Frost’s use of assonance, combined with the repeated enjambment, lays heavy emphasis on the expanse of the scenery, painting a vivid picture of natural beauty which, on the surface, would appear to be a highly romantic image. However, the connotations of heavy physical labour in ‘lifted’ contrast to the relatively simple act of looking upwards, highlighting the extent to which the workers are detached from the natural world and, by extension, the substantial effort required for them to embrace it. This preoccupation with human ‘affairs’ is a theme that runs throughout the poem, extending further into Frost’s presentation of mortality – unable to comprehend or even acknowledge the natural world, humankind is left at the mercy of death. The connotations of subservience in ‘under the sunset’ subtly reinforce this overriding sense of powerlessness and insignificance. The total inability of human kind to comprehend the nature of mortality is highlighted by the boy’s ‘rueful laugh’ in reaction to his severed hand, with the light-hearted connotations of ‘laugh’ belying the seriousness of the wound to lay emphasis on the boy’s confusion and disbelief. However in ‘stopping by woods on a snowy evening’, Frost focuses less on his ignorance of death and more on a growing acceptance of it, with the connotations of bedding in ‘downy flake’ highlighting the attractiveness of the environment. Much like in ‘Out Out —’, Frost uses the setting of the poem to develop his presentation of mortality, in this case turning an apparently barren, nihilistic environment into a relatively accommodating one. This could be seen to mimic the idea that death – a previously alien and hostile concept – has become decidedly more attractive. The continuing theme of powerlessness is also explored in the poem, with the speaker clearly placed in the position of a helpless observer in the phrase ‘watch his woods fill up with snow’. However, there is an element of defiance here – by trespassing on death’s territory (the idea of possession is emphasised by the personal pronoun in ‘his woods’) he is demonstrating both his lack of fear and ability to acknowledge the inevitability of death, even without necessarily understanding it. This is a substantially more optimistic view of mortality than that presented in ‘Out Out —’, once again developing a strong tone of acceptance and contentment.
As both poems progress, however, it is increasingly clear that they place humanity in a position of total helplessness. Frost continually takes this point further, highlighting the descent of human progression into an act of helplessness in the face of mortality: ‘no more to build on there. And they, since they / were not the one dead, turned to their affairs’. Here, in ‘Out Out —‘, the vague, impersonal use of ‘they’ lays heavy emphasis on the total lack of intimacy or affection, highlighting the ability of death to subvert the prized traditional value of family and, by extension, civilised society as a whole. In fact, the everyday connotations of ‘affairs’ seems to point the finger directly at civilised society itself, portraying the day to day existence of human beings as a sort of distraction from the reality of death and, in this way, as the embodiment of human powerlessness. The total lack of emotion in ‘build on’, combined with the shortened sentence structure, creates an empty, unfeeling tone, again representing society’s dismissive attitude towards human life – the ‘progress’ of society takes precedent. These ideas can be seen clearly reflected in the events of the First World War, where territorial gains were given a higher value than human life.
Equally, in ‘Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’, Frost portrays the relationship between death and social responsibility: ‘But I have promises to keep, / and miles to go before I sleep, / and miles to go before I sleep’. Here, the repeated line ‘and miles to go before I sleep’ creates a sense of dogged, almost endless continuation, presenting mortality as a welcome rest from the day to day repetition of life. It is only his ‘promises’ that keep him from embracing death immediately, suggesting that the only motivation for human existence is to honour commitments for the future, as opposed to the present moment. The use of continuous rhyme here helps to add to the sense of constant repetition. It is clear, then, that whilst both poems present mortality as being totally out of human hands, they choose to deal with this information differently, with Frost’s early poem focusing mainly on the random, inexplicable nature of death, whilst ’Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening’ marks the poet’s gradual acceptance of his inevitable fate.
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Throughout both poems, Frost approaches the theme of mortality both directly and indirectly, exploring not only the random, often violent nature of death, but even its dangerous appeal. ‘Out Out […]