By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Gift Outright’ is a Robert Frost poem, written in the 1930s but not published until 1942. The poem had a curious afterlife nearly twenty years later, at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy, and it was all down to sunlight. But before we get to that, it might be worth summarising the meaning of ‘The Gift Outright’, and offering some words of analysis. You can read the poem here.
Robert Frost once described ‘The Gift Outright’ as a history of the United States, and this is how the poem begins: the land was ‘ours before we were the land’s’ because the land of the United States had been claimed by Americans even before ‘the United States’ existed. To underscore his point, Frost mentions Massachusetts and Virginia, two of the original thirteen colonies, whose existence long predates the American War of Independence and the subsequent founding of the United States of America.
This is why America was ‘our land’ for over a century before ‘we were her people’: before he and his compatriots were ‘people of the United States of America’, the land that became known as the United States belonged to Americans.
But there was a problem, of course: although Americans back then felt a sense of belonging, they were technically English subjects: ‘still colonials’ of the Old World, living under the colonial rule of the British (to be completely accurate: it was Britain, rather than just England, that Americans fought the War of Independence against).
The line ‘Possessing what we still were unpossessed by’ puts across this strange sense of belonging to a land that was both American and not American (still a British possession).
Frost goes on to state that this meant Americans ‘were withholding’ something until they declared their independence from Britain. And the something that they were withholding was themselves, which Americans were withholding from the land they loved. One way of thinking about this is like a marriage: a man may love a woman (and feel he ‘belongs’ to her), and yet she may feel that he is withholding something from her until he makes the ultimate ‘declaration’ or commitment, and puts a ring on it.
However, Frost adopts the language of religion (‘salvation’) and war (‘surrender’) in the eleventh line of ‘The Gift Outright’: ironically, Americans ‘surrendered’ themselves to their land through achieving a victory over the British during the American Revolutionary War.
In the final five lines of the poem, the meaning of the poem’s title, ‘The Gift Outright’, becomes clear: Americans gave themselves ‘outright’, without hesitation, without question, and unconditionally, through going to war over their nation (before ‘their’ nation even existed as more than a hopeful idea).
Drawing on legal language now (‘deed of gift’), Frost brings this together once more with military language (‘deeds of war’): the way Americans gave something back to the land they loved was through going to war to fight for it. And even after the Revolutionary War, the expansion of the United States ‘westward’ continued. But Frost turns to the future in the closing lines of ‘The Gift Outright’, arguing that the United States, as a new nation in the late eighteenth century, had no collection of stories or cultural tradition to bolster it, and that all of that work lay ahead.
‘The Gift Outright’ is written in blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. This means that there are (usually) ten syllables per line, with the syllables arranged into five metrical feet, in this case iambs, which comprise an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. For instance, in the first line: ‘The LAND was OURS be-FORE we WERE the LAND’S’.
Frost was fond of using blank verse in his poetry: since it is close to the rhythms of regular human speech in the English language, it reflects his homespun, colloquial style. Here, too, it suits the slightly declamatory, patriotic force of the poem: note above, how both mentions of the word ‘land’ in that opening line of ‘The Gift Outright’ fall on stressed syllables, as does ‘ours’. America, the ‘Land of the Free’, belongs to us, the Americans, Frost says.
This declamatory feel to ‘The Gift Outright’ makes it an interesting poem to compare alongside another twentieth-century poem about the United States, e. e. cummings’ ‘next to of course god america i’. However, whereas cummings is satirising a public speaker proclaiming his patriotic feeling towards America, Frost’s pride in the Land of the Free is sincere and unironic.
This quality of the poem, however, also led to it having a curious new lease of life in the early 1960s, only a couple of years before Frost’s death. Robert Frost was invited to read a poem at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961.
However, as he prepared to read the poem he had written specially for the occasion, ‘For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration’, Frost found he was unable to read the words of his poem on the paper, so bright was the glare of the sun. So instead, he began to recite one of his earlier poems, from memory: ‘The Gift Outright’.
Most critics agree that ‘The Gift Outright’ is a superior poem to the inauguration poem Frost had written, and ‘The Gift Outright’ is now more or less synonymous with Kennedy’s inauguration.