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...

(The entire section is 463 words.)