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18 pages 36 minutes read

Robert Frost

The Gift Outright

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1941

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The canonized 20th-century American poet Robert Frost is the author of the lyric poem “The Gift Outright,” which he first published in 1942 in the Virginia Quarterly Review. The same year, the poem appeared in his poetry collection, A Witness Tree. In 1961, Frost attended the inauguration for President John F. Kennedy (1961-63). Though he wrote a separate poem specifically for the occasion, he couldn't read it due to the sunlight, so he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.

As a famous American poet, Frost has written many well-known poems that regularly appear in anthologies, including “Fire and Ice” (1923) and “After Apple-Picking” (1914). Like “The Gift Outright,” Frost’s poems often have a solemn, enigmatic tone. Though people criticize “The Gift Outright” for perpetuating a relatively positive view of the United States, the elusive words and ambiguous feel leave the poem open to interpretation, as it touches on multifaceted themes like the positives and negatives of gifts, mutability and vulnerability, and United States history and paradoxes.

Poet Biography

Though Frost is known for his poems about the rural Northeast—specifically, Boston and New Hampshire—he was born in San Francisco in 1874. His father, Will Frost, tried and failed to fight for the Confederate Army for the American Civil War (1861-65), but he named Robert Lee Frost after the Confederate general Robert E. Lee (President Abraham Lincoln asked Lee to head the Union army, but Lee chose to lead the Confederate troops). Will Frost was a journalist and battled alcoholism. After he died, Frost’s mother, Belle Moodie, moved him and his sister to Massachusetts, where her parents lived. Frost briefly attended Dartmouth College and Harvard University but didn’t earn a degree from either. He worked on his family’s chicken farm in New Hampshire, and when he inherited it, he sold it and moved his family—he married his high school sweetheart, and they had six kids together—to England, where became immersed in the literary scene.

In England, Frost published his first collection of poems, A Boy’s Will (1912), and his second collection, North of Boston (1914), which became a best-seller. Returning to America in 1915, Frost bought a modest farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, and began to teach at colleges and universities. He won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry four times, including once for his collection The Witness Tree (1942), which features “The Gift Outright”—the poem he read at Kennedy’s 1961 presidential inauguration. Frost died early in 1963. Near the end of that year, Lee Harvey Oswald assassinated Kennedy in Dallas, Texas.

Poem text

Frost, Robert. “The Gift Outright.” 1942. Poetry Foundation.

Summary

In the poem "The Gift Outright" by Robert Frost, the speaker describes the historical journey of the United States, emphasizing the idea that the land was initially claimed by the settlers before a distinct American identity emerged.

The speaker begins by stating that the land belonged to the settlers before they considered themselves belonging to it. This claim to the land occurred over a century ago in both Massachusetts and Virginia (Line 4). Despite this ownership, they were still under English colonial rule, possessing the land while not fully embracing or understanding its significance.

The poem suggests a sense of withholding, a reservation that made the settlers weak until they realized that the missing link was within themselves. The act of fully embracing and surrendering to the land became a source of strength and redemption.

The speaker notes that this act of giving was intertwined with many deeds of war, highlighting the historical struggles and sacrifices that shaped the nation. The westward direction is mentioned, indicating the expansion of the United States, but the land is described as “unstoried, artless, and unenhanced” (Line 15).

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