Nameless: Some Thoughts on Frost’s “The Gift Outright,” for July 4th

The Gift Outright
Robert Frost

The land was ours before we were the land’s.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Comment:

This is a strange poem, but then again, America is a strange place, even if everyone professes to understand it. The name “America” does not occur in the poem: “the land,” “ours,” “she” and the ambiguous-enough “the gift outright” all substitute. The last word of the poem is “become:” does America even exist yet?

A relation between existence and possession is posited. “The land” – again, not “America” – “was ours.” At a later point, “we were the land’s.” Possession, at the least, marks existence, even if it does not properly name what is: “our land,” “her people.” Reciprocal possession might be love, but note “before” – reciprocal possession starts with one claiming possession. This creates the problem of time: did anyone make a claim on us? Did we make prior claims?

On that latter question, we most certainly did: there are two distinct sets of colonies and traditions, Massachusetts and Virginia. Our claim to those plots was based on the English claim to us; do we want to say England loved us? Part of the poem seems to refute this idea. If love is reciprocal possession, then “Possessed by what we now no more possessed” seems to imply England had nothing like true love. But that’s a shallow, lazy way out given this: The deed of gift was many deeds of war. And Frost is well-aware of the significance of “life, liberty and property” to our heritage, the precursor of “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

Possession seems to be the possibility of love by mid-poem, though. After all, “we” were “withholding” “something,” and we felt enervated. Possession is about strength; when we feel weak, we are experiencing the most base reaction. This is not love, not yet. This is only “salvation in surrender.” We are brought to the final of 5 sentences, which is itself 5 lines. “We” are “the gift outright,” it seems, but all the doubts the modern Left has about America are there: “vaguely realizing westward” implies we did not and do not know where we are going. “But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced, / Such as she was, such as she would become” implies that leaving the Old World came at enormous cost: can we ever progress, or are we forever marked by frontier crudity?

What is unsaid is vital: we have a name for the New World, and it is ours, all of ours. As many of us were slavers, that many more died to emancipate. The lack of the name is the will to sacrifice, and that is the authentic piety of love. We have surrendered to the land, it takes us where it will; there is a body/soul relation throughout the poem, and a comment on what spirit is in “unstoried,” “unenhanced.”

10 Thoughts.

  1. You’re an exceptionally deep thinker, and I’m sorry that I can’t think of anything better to say after absorbing all of the above. Please keep posts like these coming, and I’ll think of better comments.

  2. Ashok,

    I tend to remain silent about your interpretations of poems, not because I find them dull or wrong-headed, but because I think they’re often so good that I’m embarassed by the possible glaring disparity between the elegance of your interpretation and the clumsiness of my praise. If only there were an emoticon for ‘hat-doffing’, I might not have to worry so much about the desire to say “dude, that’s like, y’know…TOTALLY..” &c.

    But this time, I have a question:

    How do you connect the famous remark from Chuchill (on the Battle of Britain) to (Locke’s)’life, liberty, and property”. Something is going on there, that I think I missed. Am I entering premature dotage or…?

    -Mal.

  3. You are always stretching my mind, and for that I thank you.

    At first reading, I thought the poem was depressing. Going back, I felt his attempt to capture the American spirit of “newness” -our fascination with discovery that comes, perhaps with “surrender,” not in a “giving in” way, but in a change of attitude – now I belong, I am no longer England’s, I too can be always new and exciting (hence the “unstoried” and “unenhanced” seemingly negative words, but really holding great potential).

    For what it’s worth…. and you may have already said this in a much better way.

  4. @Mal – there’s no logical connection between Locke’s and Churchill’s statements.

    But here, the question of “ours” and “we” gets larger the more you look at it. And “we” seems to be grounded in some sense of history, whatever it is. And the poem is entitled “the gift outright.”

    On a more or less cynical note, depending on how you take it: yes, it is true, men care for property more than each other. That can imply men fight like hell for “the land.”

    @Alice – Yeah, Frost ties “salvation in surrender” to “gave ourselves outright” – there is a loss of willfulness in one sense, in the sense of a lack of “withholding.” But possession is still there in another sense, perhaps that in which we credit discoveries to an explorer. I agree with where you’re going.

  5. “As many of us were slavers, that many more died to emancipate.”

    That statement, I think, is fundamental to an understanding of not only Lincoln but also the Founding. The creation of America also entailed the destruction of an old way of life (“But we were England’s, still colonials…”)

    Just as in Jefferson’s Letter to John Holmes,we had “the wolf by the ears, and [could] neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.”

    And leaving the Old World did come at an enormous cost; that was something forecast in the earliest days of the republic. At the outset, I don’t think anyone was publicly making an argument for slavery as they later did.

    I think the poem is very appropriate, because the westward expansion of this country put slavery in the foreground of American politics. The acquisition of territories after all was the catalyst for slavery as well as antislavery efforts.

    It was in this westward movement that America could decide for itself what it would do. No longer could this country say it had inherited the ways of the Old World: this place was “unstoried, artless, unenhanced,” fully “ours” to fill and fulfill.

  6. ashok, great post as always. Like Alice mentioned above “you are always stretching our minds,” and while this isn’t my favorite poem, I always know that your analysis comes from the heart, and your heart is in the right place.

  7. This poem struck me as terribly insulting to the native peoples of America, whose existence is completely ignored. I am surprised that none of you “deep thinkers” have commented on this.

    Occupiers always refer to the land they are taking over as empty and awaiting them, destined for them. But what about the people who originally lived there, and who were ethnically cleansed by Pres. Andrew Jackson during the Trail of Tears, etc.?

    The reference to England implies that all “real” Americans are, like Frost, descended from the English. But there were Spanish colonies on our land as early as the 1500s.

    I find this poem anglocentric and offensive. However, all poets have the right to be heard.

  8. Yes, Maria, the sense of ignoring the existence and lawful possession of the original American natives does exist in the poem.

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