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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

All Americans Must Possess "The Gift Outright"

The Gift Outright

By Robert Frost (1874–1963)       

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.

With due apologies to Native Americans, I believe Robert Frost's poem solidifies the understanding that not only are we stewards of our land, but also we are dependent upon it for our free existence. Living in a depressed area of Appalachia, I see the need for a community commitment to save this beautiful environment from ravages that occur through indifference and neglect.

Frost recited “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy on January 20, 1961. Frost had originally planned to recite a poem entitled “Dedication” that he had written for the event. However, because of the glare of the sun and his poor eyesight (he was eighty-seven years old at the time), he was unable to read his copy of the poem and instead recited “The Gift Outright.”

The tone of the poem can be seen as defensive and even belligerent in terms of its approach to the land. Frost repeats the term “ours” numerous times in the text, but insists that the “we” of the poem is the white settlers from Europe, rather than the original “owners” of the land: the Native Americans.

One may assume that the charge -- "The land was ours before we were the land’s" -- applies to natives and to colonists alike, but "Frost ignores the conflict between the colonists and the Native Americans and instead focuses on the clash between the Old World and the New World, the European world of tradition and oppression and the new American world of freedom and destiny."

(The Poetry of Robert Frost. Analysis of "The Gift Outright." 1941)

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.

At first, the colonists owned the land; however, they could not draw a true national identity from it because they were still tied to England. By embracing the lessons of the land, they were able to establish an American identity.

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.

The source of weakness for the colonists is symbolized as a lack of surrender to the fact that a manifest destiny gave them the right to build a land that was not based on the traditions of Europe. They had to offer themselves to the land itself, not to the British, and become inhabitants who were willing to establish their own American identities in a new 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.

This gift Americans gave themselves -- "a deed of land" -- required human payments of war and tremendous deeds of personal valor. It took a great toll of human suffering and death to acquire and to defend. And, later a Westward expansion as yet "vaguely realized" by the colonists of the time led to land "still unstoried" -- a great nation from humble beginnings that eventually spanned sea to sea.

I believe without a vision and an understanding of "a gift outright" we still must honor and strive to achieve, we have no connection to America, in particular to the literal "land" beneath our feet. It is this land, the earth itself, that we possess with great obligations to enrich it in every way. I wish the birthright of every American included a deed to a plot of soil so important to our way of life.

We can never be proud of our area until we develop an appreciation of our surroundings that includes a duty to improve what we have, no matter how dilapidated or how sorely ignored. This pride has nothing to do with the rich acquiring more and building new, fabulous structures as monuments to personal achievement. It has nothing to do with the maintenance of the power and the strength of one political segment of the community.

Instead, it has everything to do with common citizens grasping the land -- their gift -- and the ownership of their own rights, freedoms, and dreams. The American Dream is suffering so much that a cancer of poverty threatens to snuff it out forever. We are still "possessed by what we now no more possessed."

People must have the land, and after acquiring it, they must repeat the actions of their forefathers: They must find salvation in the soil where they live. If not, the land must be taken by new and better common stewards.

A Note: My sincere apologies to Native Americans who so nobly fought to defend their land. As a descendent of immigrants, I feel ashamed of the brutal tactics which Europeans used to drive natives from their homes. I do realize all immigrants are interlopers and subject to the accusations of unspeakable deeds. I can only wish immigration wasn't full of these horrible deeds. 
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