Robert Frost was a great lover of his country, especially the part of the country known as New England. He wrote several poems dealing with American life and culture, and with the beliefs, manners, and customs of the American people. The American ideals of democracy, liberty, and fraternity find a poignant expression in several of his poems. The Gift Outright reveals his patriotic fervour and presents the history of his country since the days of colonialism. It was recited on the occasion of the Inauguration ceremony of President John F Kennedy on January 20, 1962.
Frost in this short poem of 16 lines, traces in a most simple and unassuming manner, the whole history of the American people, their resistance to foreign domination and their complete identification with their Virgin country, through selfless showering of love. Since its publication, it has been a constant source of inspiration to Americans. It is one of the best patriotic poems ever written about America and the American people. Frost himself held it in high esteem, and once remarked about it: “It’s the whole story. It’s all my politics… my national history.” What makes it appealing is not its political or historical content, but its presentation of the poet’s patriotic zeal with an artistic finish and depth of feeling.
Robert Frost once described The Gift Outright as a history of the United States, and this is how the poem begins: the land was ‘ours before we were the land’s’ because the land of the United States had been claimed by Americans even before ‘the United States’ existed. To underscore his point, Frost mentions Massachusetts and Virginia, two of the original thirteen colonies, whose existence long predates the American War of Independence and the subsequent founding of the United States of America. This is why America was ‘our land’ for over a century before ‘we were her people’: before he and his compatriots were ‘people of the United States of America’, the land that became known as the United States belonged to Americans.
But there was a problem, of course: although Americans back then felt a sense of belonging, they were technically English subjects: ‘still colonials’ of the Old World, living under the colonial rule of the British, to be completely accurate: it was Britain, rather than just England, that Americans fought the War of Independence against. The line ‘Possessing what we still were unpossessed by’ puts across this strange sense of belonging to a land that was both American and not American.
Frost goes on to state that this meant Americans ‘were withholding’ something until they declared their independence from Britain. And the something that they were withholding was themselves, which Americans were withholding from the land they loved. One way of thinking about this is like a marriage: a man may love a woman, and yet she may feel that he is withholding something from her until he makes the ultimate ‘declaration’ or commitment, and puts a ring on it. However, Frost adopts the language of religion -‘salvation’ -and war -‘surrender’ -in the eleventh line of The Gift Outright: ironically, Americans ‘surrendered’ themselves to their land by achieving a victory over the British during the American Revolutionary War.
In the final five lines of the poem, the meaning of the poem’s title, The Gift Outright, becomes clear: Americans gave themselves ‘outright’, without hesitation, without question, and unconditionally, through going to war over their nation before ‘their’ nation even existed as more than a hopeful idea.
The Gift Outright is written in blank verse: unrhymed iambic pentameter. This means that there are usually ten syllables per line, with the syllables arranged into five metrical feet, in this case, iambs, which comprise an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one. Frost was fond of using blank verse in his poetry: since it is close to the rhythms of regular human speech in the English language, it reflects his homespun, colloquial style.
The Gift Outright is a poem in which Frost expresses his feelings for his motherland, America. He speaks here of the intimate relationship between men and their native lands. The poem deals with the problem of how a nation achieves true nationhood. Frost traces a concise history of America and reveals the contradictions in the American mind through the centuries of the establishment and growth of the nation. Frost uses a religious metaphor in the poem – ‘salvation in surrender’. The phrase; ‘such as she would become’, clearly suggests the process of growth present in any living thing or society. It is not the reaching of a fixed goal, but a growth towards chosen goals.
This poem is free from exaggerated sentiments and a militant jingoistic attitude. The patriotic sentiment is different from the feeling of possession. The Gift Outright is free from political propaganda, which is rare in most patriotic poems. The poem may be described as the state of the American mind – its reactions to colonialism.