Sunday Poetry: The Gift Outright, by Robert Frost

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 would become.

– Robert Frost

At John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration, an 86 year-old Robert Frost stood up to read a poem he had written for the occasion. His eyesight failed, though, in the glare reflected off the snow-covered grounds on a bright, sunny day, and he discarded his longer poem and recited, from heart, the above, much shorter, gem.

The Gift Outright is a perfect inaugural poem, for 1961 and for 2009. It starts from the beginning of America (at least as we non-Native Americans look at it), and ends in the future. It speaks of the many deeds of war – the struggles that have formed America into the country it is. Looking back at the country as it stood on that bright day in 1961, did anyone imagine “such as she was, such as she would become” a country led by an African-American man who would be born later that year?

For those of us who welcome Obama’s election, Tuesday night was a long time coming, and something most of us half-suspected would be ripped from us before it would happen. We withheld our optimism, no matter what the polls told us. In a grander sense, by limiting the presidency to white males, our country has been withholding full participation to those who did not fit the profile. “Something we were withholding made us weak . . .”.

Standing at the occasion of the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, Robert Frost was moved to recall these words in the bright sunshine. They were not a summation of American history, they were a redirection to the future. On the occasion of Barack Obama’s election, it is difficult not to be like Robert Frost on that day, dazzled, marveling at America, “such as she was, such as she would become”.

2 Responses to “Sunday Poetry: The Gift Outright, by Robert Frost”

  1. Anonymous says:

    While Robert Frost did read this poem at JFK's inauguration, he did not write it for the occasion.
    The poem was written in 1942.

  2. Dan says:

    That's correct – which is why I mentioned that he discarded the longer poem he had written for the occasion.

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