“Out, Out”

February 7, 2009 · 0 comments

Today’s installment of poetry appreciation week is a two-fer.  The basis is the phrase “out, out”; Robert Frost’s poem is supposedly a direct reference to Shakespeare‘s lines from Macbeth:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

[Macbeth Act V, scene 5, 19–28]

I mentioned these 10 lines once before in my discussion of Alan Watts‘ autobiography In My Own Way.  They are said by the main character (Macbeth) when he learns of his wife’s death.

Here is Frost’s poem of the same name as the title of this post:

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.

I suppose it’s pretty obvious that both of these pieces of literature are about death.  Back in high school, we memorized the 10 lines from Macbeth, and I remember them to this day.  I think I’ve written enough in this blog (the whole thing, not just this post), to give you an idea of why Shakespeare’s words strike a chord with me.  But if I haven’t, here’s a quick synopsis:

No, I’m not obsessed with death.  I am, however, something of a nihilist.  I don’t think there’s any hereafter, but rather that what plays out in these lives of ours is all we get.  From an extreme macroscopic view, what plays out therein is magnificently unimportant – “signifying nothing”.

These things said, if we zoom in from the macroscope to what’s happening in the here and now, they are supremely important.  To us.  But only to each of us individually – as Frost points out in his last two lines.

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