What is the theme of poem "The Gift Outright" by Robert Frost?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Having been fortunate enough at the age of 13, to view John Kennedy’s inauguration on television, I witnessed history.   Robert Frost, the first poet to speak at an inauguration, had composed a special poem for the ceremony entitled "Dedication."  The day in January  was bone-chillingly cold,  sunny, and windy. The elderly Frost had difficulty holding his paper and reading in the sun's glare.  So, he recited from memory the poem "The Gift Outright."

This poem is characteristic of Frost’s poetry.  The tone is conversational using not only common words but  literary devices to give the poem its meter and rhythm.  Repetition of lines, metaphors, and alliteration serve to create the forthrightness of the poem. Although  the poem is one stanza, its sixteen lines can be divided into two parts: lines 1-8 and 9-16. 

The subject of the poem is American history.  In the beginning of life in America, the pilgrims worked the land and labored to survive.  The pilgrims used the land for over a hundred years. Not until Americans were willing to fight for the land,  did the country claim its owners. Sacrifices had to be made, a war had to be fought,  and liberty had to be declared before America accepted its citizens.

The poem’s theme  speaks to what it took to become America and Americans  by emphasizing the past; however, the poem's  final statement challenges future generations.  Americans must be patriotic and loyal to the country in order for it to reach its potential.  Americans cannot receive the benefit of the land without giving to it.  Without providing the art and  literature, the country will not be enhanced nor reach its potential.  Thus the theme of the poem sets forth Frost’s prophetic look at history:

 We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

Even today, the country must stand together facing the unknown future with loyalty and sacrifice from its citizens. If Frost could have experienced the last fifty years, his perception of America today would be interesting to say the least.

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