Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Poetry, Revised Edition)
“The Gift Outright” serves as history, narrative, metaphor, and political statement. Its subject matter—the origins and future of the United States of America—makes it a logical choice for his presentation at President Kennedy’s inauguration. It serves as both a reminder of the past and a call to action for the future.
Frost begins with no proper nouns to orient readers to his subject matter; he draws them in by his use of pronouns—the corporate and individual meanings of “we” and the land as “she.” He refers to the “hundred years” preceding the designation as “her people.” He next refers to Massachusetts and Virginia, setting his geographical location, and with “we werestill colonials” he sets the time. The British colonized what became the United States of America, and the “we” of the poem in turn colonized the “her,” the land itself, by inhabiting it without the responsibilities of possession. “Surrender,” entering into a reciprocal relationship, required not “withholdingourselves.” The first eight lines spell out this unequal beginning. While Americans “possessed” the land, they “still were unpossessed by” it. The weakness was failure to act, to contribute, to shape the land. The first-person narration attempts to pull the reader into the feeling of responsibility and duty.
Lines 9-16 explain what happened to alter the relationship. The “gift” of the title gains complexity throughout the poem; possessing the gift of land required citizens who “gave [them]selves outright” to it, and “The deed of gift was many deeds of war.” The last three lines move from the acquisition to the possession. The people gave “to the land vaguely realizing westward.” While the earth clearly precedes the country, without citizens to “realize” it, a country does not exist. It remains “unstoried, artless, unenhanced.”
In the end, citizens cannot receive without giving, without providing the stories (both narrative and buildings), the art (both knowledge and art forms), and the enhancements to earn title. The poem implies that an imperfect citizenry (“such as we were”) must sacrifice to the imperfect land (“such as she was”) in order to build something greater than the sum of its parts (“such as she would become”).