The Poem

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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...

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Forms and Devices

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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 hundred years before they welcomed and possessed the land. Only with “surrender” and the “giftof war” did the relationship become reciprocal. Lines 1-8 set forth the first half of that argument, expanding and explaining his first line. Lines 9-16 set forth the second half. Here Frost develops his narrative to expand and explain the change. While...

(The entire section is 482 words.)


(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

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Gerber, Philip L. Robert Frost. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.

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