The narrator describes America’s history as a nation from the time of the European colonists. Although the colonists owned the land, they could not draw a national identity from it because they were still tied to England. They eventually realized that they were denying their beliefs in freedom and, by embracing the lessons of the land, were able to establish an American identity. In order to accept this gift of identity, the people had to commit many acts of war and mark the land as their own, but the end result was a truly American land.
This poem is technically a sonnet, though unusual in this form because of its sixteen lines. It is written in iambic pentameter and free verse.
This poem was written as early as 1936, but Frost did not publish it until 1941, a few months after the United States entered World War II. Although it had already achieved a level of familiarity and fame among the American public, “The Gift Outright” received special attention when Frost recited it 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.”
From one perspective, this poem may seem to be nothing more than a triumphantly patriotic work; Frost himself once compared it to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The colonists in America initially struggled to become one with the land because of their ties to England. As years passed, however, they were able to build a commitment to the land and establish their identities as Americans because of their efforts to build a land that was not based on the traditions of Europe. In this way, the poem can be read as Frost’s personal celebration of manifest destiny.
The broad enthusiasm for America that characterizes the poem takes an unexpected turn in the grave thirteenth line: “(The deed of gift was many deeds of war.)” Suddenly, the poem is not only about a commitment to the land, but also a discussion of the Revolutionary War and remorse that the battle over the land caused so many deaths. The use of parentheses in this particular line ensures that the specifics of the war are not mentioned, but does insist that the memory of the war should not be forgotten or cast aside.
The poem can also be read as somewhat 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. Frost chooses to ignore 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. As a result, the type of American identity that Frost expresses is very different from the contemporary understanding of the American identity as an amalgamation of different cultures and ethnicities.