Write Team: Thoughts for Memorial Day

In 1953, poet-critic Randall Jarrell wrote that Robert Frost’s poem, “The Gift Outright,” is “perhaps the best patriotic poem ever written about our country.”

I believe that judgment holds, and “The Gift Outright” still stands in that preeminent place in our nation’s literature. It is one of Frost’s “smaller poems,” as Jarrell described it, but large in vision, understanding and scope.

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

The opening line is a simple, declarative sentence, which enunciates the dual possessiveness of people and their land. It hints in its subtlety of a Thoreauvian assurance that ownership ultimately is the land’s of people and not the people’s of the land.

“She was our land more than a hundred years

Before we were her people. She was ours

In Massachusetts, in Virginia,

But we were Englands, still colonials,

Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,

Possessed by what we now no more possessed.”

The second and third sentences are richly and boldly turned. They expand with specificity upon the first, giving a vignette-history of the emerging colonial people toward the revolutionary necessity to establish appropriate owner-relations between England and the colonies and with the land itself.

“Something we were withholding made us weak

Until we found it was ourselves

We were withholding from our land of living.

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.”

A rising intensity begins in the fourth sentence, and it begins so masterfully, so subtly ironic, that we may be unaware of the balance established in the consignment of religious sentiment to a new consciousness between the people and their land.

This consciousness becomes, ultimately, a powerful force in nation-building and people-binding, which we seem now to be on the threshold of understanding. All immigrant peoples, and we are all immigrants, must find the truth of this in the discovery of their permanent identity in this nation.

“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.”

Jarrell said these lines have an “unlooked-for intensity and elevation of emotion, that have a conclusiveness and magnificence we are hardly able to explain.” All great poetry is conclusion in its own magnificence. It needs no explanation. Great poetry becomes text for peripatetic musings. It offers light for unexplored paths, always new and full of fearsome dangers.

The poet reminds us of the people’s perpetual sacrifice – “outright” – “The deed of gift was many deeds of war” – an irony of great insight and incredible power. Given to the land, this sacrifice empowers a constancy of becoming for the nation, which has, the poet suggests, a conscious volition to offer fulfillment to its people.

This poem is an important landmark on our intellectual landscape, particularly since Frost read it at the Inauguration of John F. Kennedy in 1961. It, like the land itself claims us as its own and nurtures us, on our long, often tortuous, journey through history.

Robert Cotner lives in Seneca and has a passion for writing. He is engaged in social and church activities and a heavy schedule of reading. He is a former English teacher and founder of a monthly literary journal, among other endeavors.