A young man is cutting firewood with a buzz saw in New England. Near the end of the day, the boy’s sister announces that it is time for dinner and, out of excitement, the boy accidentally cuts his hand with the saw. He begs his sister not to allow the doctor to amputate the hand but inwardly realizes that he has already lost too much blood to survive. The boy dies while under anesthesia, and everyone goes back to work.
Frost uses the method of personification to great effect in this poem. The buzz saw, though technically an inanimate object, is described as a cognizant being, aggressively snarling and rattling as it does its work. When the sister makes the dinner announcement, the saw demonstrates that it has a mind of its own by “leaping” out of the boy’s hand in its excitement. Frost refuses to lay blame for the injury on the boy, who is still a “child at heart.”
In addition to blaming the saw, Frost blames the adults at the scene for not intervening and telling the boy to “call it a day” before the accident occurred. Had the boy received an early excuse from the workday, he would have avoided cutting off his hand and would have been saved from death. Moreover, a mere half-hour break from his job would have allowed the boy to regain part of his childhood, if only for a moment.
Frost’s emphasis on the boy’s passivity and innocence in this situation is particularly significant in the context of the time period. After moving to England with his family, Frost was forced to return to America because of the onset of World War I in 1915, an event that would destroy the lives of many innocent young boys. With that in mind, this poem can be read as a critique of the world events that forced boys to leave their childhoods behind and ultimately be destroyed by circumstances beyond their control.
After the boy’s hand is nearly severed, he is still enough of an adult to realize that he has lost too much blood to survive. He attempts to “keep the life from spilling” from his hand, but even that is only an attempt, since nothing can be done. Above all, though, the boy hopes to maintain his physical dignity in his death, rather than die with a missing hand. Again, Frost channels the horrors already occurring on the battlefields in Europe, where death from enemy shells was automatically devoid of dignity.
By the end of the poem, the narrator no longer has anything to say about the tragedy of the boy’s death. While the first twenty-six lines contain elegant metaphors and descriptions of the scene, the final eight lines are detached and unemotional. The narrator’s “So” and “No more to build on there” reveal that even the narrator is unable to find any explanation for why such a young boy had to die.
In the last line of the poem, the narrator enters a state of complete detachment, almost as if indifference is the only way to cope with the boy’s death. Just as soldiers on the battlefield must ignore the bodies around them and continue to fight, the people of this New England town have nothing to do but move on with their lives.