Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” perhaps most famous for having been read by the author at President John F. Kennedy’s inauguration on January 20, 1961, discusses the relationship between Americans and America. In its sixteen iambic pentameter lines, the poem questions and affirms Americans’ history as a nation.
Frost begins by setting out the major argument of the poem: “The land was ours before we were the land’s.” He proceeds to explain and clarify that statement. The physical land of America, the plot of earth itself, acts as a major player in the work, the “she” and “her” of his lines. Personifying the land this way results in making it an equal partner with the “we” and “our,” the American citizens who act as the other player.
Frost summarizes the history and politics of the formation of the country by elaborating on this relationship, the “gift” of the title that Americans could not accept without surrendering to it. In the metaphor of the poem, the land gave itself to its citizens while America was still a British colony, so that its people did not “possess” it but merely inhabited it. The first half of the poem sets forth this concept. The second half explains what happened to make Americans “her people.” According to the poem, the “gift” of the title had to be earned by both sides before becoming a gift “outright.”
In this poem, one sees many distinctive characteristics of Frost’s poetry: the conversational tone, the words of everyday speech, and the literary devices that create the meter, rhythm, and “sound” of his poetry. While succeeding in sounding like everyday speech, “The Gift Outright” employs many traditional poetic devices; in fact, one of the greatest achievements of Frost’s poetry results in the straightforwardness of its prose and word choices belying the poetic nature of the work itself.
The poem summarizes early American history while also making a political and human statement about the responsibilities of citizenship and ownership. Americans, he argues, cannot claim title to the land without making sacrifices and contributing labor to it. While on one hand citizens “possess” the country, on the other they must assume the responsibilities and commitment to its growth and success. This duality of rights and responsibilities appears in line 10, when he refers to it as “our land of living.” Americans not only live there and derive their “living” from it but also must accept the “surrender” implicit in this relationship.
Frost combines the political and the personal, the narrative and the poetic, the historical and the present to create a poem with clear expectations of what being an American entails. While greatly emphasizing the past, Frost ends the poem with a direct relationship to the future—what the country “would become.”
Forms and Devices
In its sixteen lines, “The Gift Outright” presents a straightforward commentary on the history of the country, beginning literally with the land, the earth itself. Throughout, Frost personifies the physical earth, the “she” of the poem. Citizens of the country and the country itself engage in a relationship, with each side claiming ownership, although on different timetables, of the other. Frost relies on the argument—the recounting of history—to carry the meaning; therefore, one does not find heavy use of symbolism or double meanings. Given the conversational tone, the choice of straightforward words, and the lack of rhyme, at first glance the poem may seem rather “unpoetic” in its structure and style. However, Frost carefully crafts that very casualness. He combines meter and sound to create memorable and beautiful phrases, such as “vaguely realizing westward” and “unstoried, artless, unenhanced.”
The poem has no stanza breaks; however, rhetorically, it can be divided in two. In its simplest terms, the poem says that the land welcomed and possessed settlers for more than one...
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