THE GIFT OUTRIGHT

Today we will look at a poem about becoming American, seen primarily from the viewpoint of a descendant of immigrants from the United Kingdom. It was written by Robert Frost, the poet who always comes off as a simple if thoughtful New England farmer, though he was well educated and even was at times a teacher. In this poem we are looking at becoming American from Frost’s “New England” perspective.

Let’s look at it in parts.

THE GIFT OUTRIGHT

The land was ours before we were the land’s.

He is talking about America — more specifically about the land that was first colonized by England and later became the United States.


“The land was ours before we were the land’s.” He speaks collectively of Americans from the beginnings of European — primarily British — immigration. They came to this land and took possession of it — owned it — before they really became a part of it. What does he mean by that? Let’s read further:

She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people.
 
The first permanent settlement in North America was established by English colonists in 1607.  That was more than a hundred years before the stirrings of revolution in 1765.

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.

The land was “ours” — speaking collectively of Americans and their early immigrant ancestors from England — yet those who settled in America, in the colonies of Massachusetts and Virginia, were not yet “Americans” but were still psychologically English colonials. They possessed the land in this New World, but still were not really a part of the land they now owned, not yet possessed by the land itself. They were still held by the notion that they were “English” — though they no longer lived in the British Isles, but rather on American soil.

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.
 
There was something missing in the American character of the first immigrant colonists until they realized, after generations of living on American soil, that they were not really English any more — they found it was themselves they had been keeping from America — the land they lived on.  And once they realized that notion — the notion that they were no longer English but had become the land’s — had become Americans — with that their concept of themselves changed completely.  In their minds they were no longer subjects of a foreign power and king, but were Americans who could choose and create their own destiny.
 
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.
 
Still new to the idea of being “Americans” no longer under a foreign power, they now gave themselves “outright”  — gave themselves completely to being Americans — and the gift they gave themselves was certified by a deed of gift — a metaphorical document — that included “many deeds of war — primarily the acts of those who fought in the Revolutionary War that made America independent.
 
The land to which the newly-realized Americans gave themselves  was “vaguely realizing westward” — gradually becoming known through the first signs of the westward expansion of the newly independent country from the original eastern colonies that had now become states — a westward trend that would eventually reach the Pacific Ocean.  Frost himself was born in San Francisco on the California coast, though he later settled in New Hampshire.
 
That land was still “unstoried” — without having yet made its own history,  “artless” — simple and free from artificiality, and “unenhanced” — primitive and not yet raised to what it could become.  And so, Frost seems to say, that is how it still is.
 
There is some truth to the poem — the idea that a place changes those who live in it.  Yet as presented in this poem, we must keep in mind that it is also a limited view, with its focus on English colonists of Anglo-saxon ancestry.  It took immigrants from many countries to make America.  But that too is a narrow view.  What about the numerous tribes of Native Americans who were a part of the land many thousands of years before English colonials arrived?  We could say they were more a part of the land than masses of Americans today, who have separated themselves from the land and from Nature.  Yet they are completely absent from Frost’s poem, which seems to have the perspective of many elementary school history books in the 1950s, which focused so heavily on the English roots of America that children of German, Irish, French, Chinese, Japanese and other immigrant ancestors might have thought they too were of English ancestry.
 
Nonetheless, though seen from a limited point of view, Frost makes a very good point about the difference between simply occupying or owning land and becoming a real part of that land in spirit.
 
Just a final caution:  do not mistake “the gift outright” as being the land as a gift to the immigrants; the gift outright was really the giving of the immigrants and immigrant descendants of themselves to the land psychologically — becoming thus Americans not only by place of residence but in spirit.
 
David
 
Here is the poem to read again as a whole:
 
The Gift Outright
 
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 will become.

2 thoughts on “THE GIFT OUTRIGHT

  1. sabrinamccarthy

    Haven’t read this poem since I was young in school. Now it seems scandalous to me, an African-American, who is gaining a decolonized view of history.

  2. “Such as she will become”. How can we all move forward? Will everyone, all of us, return to their origins, go back to their roots or accept where they are at this time, here and now?

Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.