Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Gift Outright

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.

I have always wondered about the message of this poem of Frost's, which was published in 1942 (but written as early as 1936), and read, by Frost, at President-elect John F. Kennedy's inaugural ceremony in January 1961. I can distinctly recall watching Frost on television at the time. The telecast was facilitated in my junior high school library, where a handful of us (I was a second year student at the time, in 8th grade) viewed it. I had campaigned for Kennedy that Fall, going door to door with my white, blue and red plastic Democrat hat, handing out leaflets. That was about the apex of my patriotic feeling for America; I don't think I've felt that good about my country since. 

But Frost's poem, which he read instead of the poem he'd composed for the occasion, has stayed with me over the years, and I've turned the lines (and their meaning) over and over in my mind, in time, and have come to think of it as a much more complex work than it first seemed. 

The poem has traditionally been viewed as a jingo-istic, smugly complacent excuse for the forceful colonization of the New World, full of righteous presumption. Frost has been seen as defending America's claim to occupancy, as if it were a sacred privilege, setting aside three hundred years of ambiguous, conflicted history. 

But Frost was never more complex and ambivalent than when he seemed to be making broad statements. In nearly every line he ever wrote, there is a slipperiness, a slyness, which withholds full assertion in the interests of ambiguity. "Not so fast," Frost often seems to be saying, if you think you've caught him, "what do the words actually say?" Frost often seemed like a kind of aphorist, whose clever rhymes and phrases sounded like Biblical homily mixed with a dose of Franklin's Poor Richard, the trusty New Englander's taciturn skepticism turned into art. 

In the first place, there is the issue of voice and personification of address. Is Frost speaking in his own voice--the "voice of the poet"--or in the generalized voice of his people (Americans). The personal pronoun, after all, is "we" not I. In other words, before we impute any motive to the writer of the poem, we have to acknowledge that the poems is, in effect, a dramatic monologue, rather like the expression of a Greek Chorus. You could say then that the sentiment in the poem is not in any sense Frost's, but a dramatic exposition of a certain feeling or dialectic which the writer is representing. It is certainly possible to deduce patriotic fervor in a writer who handles the question of national sovereignty, but we'd be wrong if we simply identified Frost with the statements made in the poem. 

The title of the poem, The Gift Outright, announces the poem's ostensible subject-matter, the whole meaning and implication of giving and receiving gifts. There's a lightly religious tinge to the word gift, which is often used in hymns and devotional texts to signify God's generosity, or humankind's debt to the creator. Anything given outright suggests that there are "no strings attached," that what is given is given without reservations, without implied debt or recompense. This sense then, of generosity, and/or of a simple right of possession, is clearly implied by the title. Whatever has been tendered, can be accepted with a clear conscience, without guilt, without moral obligation.

That first line, "The land was ours before we were the land's" is one of Frost's most famous, not least because its meaning, while pretending to be clear, is really very vague. In what sense can you possess something before you've occupied it? Or, in what sense can an inanimate object, such as a body of land, possess its occupants? People may lay claim to something simply out of hubris or an excess of confidence, but it doesn't become theirs until they actually occupy it. Or, again, it may be possible to be possessed by something you identify with or feel an attachment to or an affection for, simply by long, determined occupancy. You can own a sentiment simply by duration; but owning a piece of land, or especially a nation or a region or a whole continent, is a more complicated matter. And to return to our earlier observation, who exactly are the stand-ins for the "we" of the poem's voice? Are they all just Americans? Or are they some amalgam of natives and colonials and slaves? Is it possible even to speak of a country and its inhabitants as broadly as the poem implies? Has America ever been as unified and monolithic as the "we" voice implies it is, or could ever be? Perhaps the poem's greatest presumption of all is Frost's intention to speak for "all" in such a generalized way. And, to be precise, just what gift is being given, and to whom, and by whom? Who but a deity is empowered to give away lands?   

The second line sounds more straightforward, "She was our land more than a hundred years/Before we were her people." In other words, we didn't have a country of our own, we were mere colonial settlers, subservient to the Mother Country (England). England owned her colonies, so we weren't "her" (the land's) owners. "She was ours/In Massachusetts, in Virginia . . . still colonials" etc., but "possessing what we were still unpossessed by/Possessed by what we now no more possessed." That last phrase is a tricky one, much like the poem's first line. What does Frost mean by it?

He seems to be making a distinction between different classes of ownership, one kind which is the official title (like a deed to a property), the other a connection which goes deeper, as a man's connection to a land which he works (as in farming or building a water-mill), takes sustenance from, and nurtures. 

We know now from history--perhaps we always knew, though our super-awareness of our own culpability has been a bit delayed by our human vanity--that the Native American populations had rights and claims that we simply ignored. The "indians" didn't have customary property and land-use traditions, though we made "treaties" and "contracts" with them, designed primarily to hoodwink them out of their birthrights as people occupying a place for a long time. There's an ironic tension here between the rights of possession Frost suggests about the Colonists, and the rights of those from whom these properties and rights of access were stolen. But it's also important to remind ourselves that Frost, again, is speaking through a generalized chorale of voices, not as an ordinary citizen making historical arguments to explain a naked appropriation.     

Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,

This has a much more direct and less conciliatory tone about seizure and possession. Frost suggests that Americans deliberately "withheld" some power or prerogative, as if our sense of our own destiny was simply an option, instead of an inevitable tendency. 

And forthwith found salvation in surrender.

The argument here begins to seem even more self-serving, as if the only issue of conscience was in the realization of our (Americans') own "right" to make of the new continent what we chose to, as if it had always belonged to us, even before we "occupied" it--as citizens of our own declaration. It is almost as if the only kind of independent spirit of action lay in throwing off the yoke of British tyranny, rather than in stealing the country from its rightful aboriginal inhabitants. "Surrender" has a passive connotation, whereas what is being described is anything but passive. The conquering and settlement of the West--from Ohio all the way to the Pacific Coast--aside from the legal purchases and annexations (Louisiana, Alaska, parts of the Southwest)--was a simple seizure, involving military conflict and diplomatic treachery. 

Such as we were we gave ourselves outright

To the land vaguely realizing westward,

This has a charmingly innocent ring to it--"such as we were" is deliberately non-commital and bland, "we gave ourselves outright/To the land vaguely realizing westward." We gave ourselves to the land sounds, again, like a very evasive rationalization of what was, indeed, a violent taking, not a "vague" "realization". But sandwiched between these two parts of a single sentence is the parenthetical 

(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)

The taking we know occurred was never something "given" but something seized. To describe America's settlement of the North American continent as a "surrender" or as the passive acceptance of a gift (from whom?) seems like a wholly undeserved exoneration, the whitewash of the Colonial myth of taming the wilderness and turning the empty land to profitable account. 

But Frost of course realized all these implications, and understood that the dramatic expression of them was a poet's license. To stand in place of a nation's conscience--of a nation you love and believe in--involves a deeper exploration of her character than any un-nuanced patriotic declaration. The poem isn't an anthem to the promise of America's destiny, but a portrayal of the myth we created to justify our avarice and selfishness. Frost is holding up a mirror to our half-hearted commitment to the spirit of ambition and exploitation which lies just below the surface of the official American character. 

But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become.

Here the protagonist of the poem is transformed from the "we" of the first 14 lines, to "she" (the nation we would become). Personifying the nation as a female entity is a crucial and abrupt turn at the end of the poem. It is almost as if the choral body is claiming an innocence that it knows is bogus. Could innocence excuse the transgressions America committed in its own interests? 

It's important, I think, to note that Frost makes no claims for America's usual politically correct hallmarks. The poem isn't an argument in favor of blind devotion; it's a portrayal of a certain over-simplified vindication, through the glass of an American chorus of voices. It has the familiar rhetorical sound of formal speechmaking, the sort of language we're expecting to hear at a funeral, or at the consecration of a special piece of ground. It's even a little stiff-backed in its manner. It has the '"sound" of purposeful credence, even as it displays a pompous self-regard. 

On balance, Frost's poem is a dramatic panel against the backdrop of a larger historical panorama--not intended to make us feel either  a national pride, nor a personal conceit. A country, as Frost is careful to insist, that was, and is unstoried, artless, unenhanced. On balance, the poem poses a challenge, not the challenge that America posed for itself--to conquer an empty continent that lay before us as if it were a gift from God--but for a future of accomplishment. 

Frost is a poet of representation; he rarely makes direct unambiguous statements, except lightly or in jest. There is a kind of objective distance he sets up between his personal view of the world, and the assertions that he makes in his verse. He usually speaks in a "voice" that he learned to cultivate in his poems, a kind of rustic New England voice, grudging, clever, diffident, and not very friendly. One wonders what Frost the man felt about his fellow citizens--their attitudes, their history, their presumptions. He didn't suffer fools gladly. There's a fierce independence in his character. I don't think I'd have wanted to know him, but I still find his poems very compelling, despite their formal blandness. 


Kirby Olson said...

I think you're right that the poem is very slippery, and the sense it has of a kind of manifest destiny is tricky and perhaps somewhat ribald. It's hard to tell with him, as he wasn't what he seemed to be - he was always something else. He said for example that poems should have a solid meter, as when you play tennis you need a net. But he also said that something there is that doesn't love a wall. A wall could be a kind of net.

It's odd, isn't it? Perhaps a case could be made for Empson's ambiguity as an aspect of modernism that Frost embraced. Many argue that modernism and ambiguity were intertwined. Many of Moore's critics mourn her turn toward direct public address that also began in about 1942 when America entered into WWII. The French, the English, and others, needed us, at last. De Gaulle had looked to American industry as the only hope against the Nazi's tanks and airplanes. We provided this, and then turned out more and more to face down the Japs.

Earlier on it was our industrial might that silenced the south, and before that, the Indians, so-called. We seem to furnish out of ingenuity weapons that can knock down our enemies. How long will this last? We have an imbecile in the White House who wants to put every impediment he can between us and our history, between us and our future. 3000 pages of stupid law that keeps companies from employing as they wish the ingeniousness of our fellow countrymen.

Will it kill America as it is intended to do? Or will we overturn that stinking mess, and go back to the individual? Frost's poem invokes a "we" that was once monolithic and may have felt unified in the days leading up to WWII. It's now scattered into the Babel of multiculturalism, and mutual antagonisms that the left has endlessly fostered.

When you think of the red white and blue now we think of Fox News and its anchors such as Hannity and O'Reilly - the last true lovers of the American mission. After Vietnam most in your generation turned against that vision of America and never came home again. It is unclear for me where Frost stood, or how much in fact he knew about history, and what he believed about our common future. He seems on the face of it here to think that this is a God-promised land. But he's capable of simply telling us what we want to hear, I think, while leaving enough lacunae for us to wonder lately whether he believed in it with us or not.

Curtis Faville said...

Frost had an independence of mind, but he was personally abrasive and diffident. He didn't get close to people. There's stuff about him abusing his daughter. Depression was in his genes; his son committed suicide.

What I look for in any poet is a sense of their insight, which makes everything else seem trivial and ephemeral. Moore makes me feel that way, that the most important thing in the world is being recited, while chaos reigns outside of the body of the work. Frost makes me feel that way. And Gilbert. And James Wright. But there are no simple answers.

Every good poem is an attempt to define why it matters to be alive, to be a witness to the wonder and tragedy of this lived life.

I feel a big emotional push in your quest for a moral center; it's admirable. I wish we saw the world in the same way, but we never shall.

This blogging is strange. Talking to people for years, but never meeting or getting any closer.

Kirby Olson said...

I think it's best that we don't meet or get closer as it leaves us with a conversation. As with Frost who you have said you wouldn't care to meet books and blogs allow people who might punch one another or wish death upon one another to actually converse instead and learn from one another. Moore's world is amazing, and has never been well understood. There is a new biography by Linda Leavell that is out next week (October 22). I think it should be an excellent read. Moore was an unusual woman to say the least. She apparently slept in the same bed with her mother until the mother died. I don't think there was incest involved nor does the biography claim that there was. The biography will push for a new reading of Moore I think.

I believe I may have fed one small fact into the biography. I discovered in a Trenton, NJ paper called the Star-Ledger that Moore was worth $400,000 dollars when she died, and she gave a big chunk of that money to her black maid.

I sent this to Leavell. She may have already known about it as she didn't thank me but only said (this was two years back) that she wasn't up to that part of Moore's life yet. I am wondering if I am credited at all in the book. My long essay on Moore's involvement with the Camperdown Elm in Brooklyn's Prospect Park may also be cited. I'm eager to see. But even if I don't come up at all I am hoping the new book is readable and fun and not too violently feminist. I don't know Leavell on a personal basis.

There are armies of Moore scholars out there - many of whom are queering her or using her poems and turning them into feminist ice-picks.

I see her as more of a Protestant.

I have never understood Frost's work at bottom. He apparently got so mad at his wife that on more than one occasion he waved a gun at her head. That's very far from the avuncular image he fostered. People tend to have a single image that they foster to create an archetype when they become famous. More complex figures don't float like that on such neat stereotypes.

Don't despair about us never quite meeting. It's parallel lines for most of us, but over time you get to like the other people whether you want to or not. I personally miss JADL immensely at my blog.

And I missed you (but not your truculence, which has faded) when you wrote us off for a while.

I like to see Ed Baker's contributions to your blog. I don't like his viewpoint at all, but I came to like him.

I am grateful to the internet. I can't stand being around anyone for very long except for members of my own family and a few close friends. But it allows me to snoop on folks like Silliman and even exchange notes with him. I think he would hate my viewpoint and I his if we were forced to meet live as people used to be forced to do. Now you can see poetry readings live or nearly live, on the internet. You can argue with people who would make you sick to your stomach in person.

And here and there you can learn a lot.

Curtis Faville said...

Maybe you are a cold fish.

I doubt it though. No one who is raising four kids sympathetically can be an ice-man.

I think we both share a desire to find answers to the quandary of conduct.

I gave up on the church in adolescence, and I've never looked back. Complex intellectual discussions regarding faith really have nothing at all to do with what people do in church on Sunday--IMHO. It all felt like hypocrisy to me, and I've never encountered anyone who could convince me otherwise. But then you run into someone like Stu, obviously a gravely serious guy about his faith, but it's so profoundly intellectual and probing, how could it have anything to do with singing in a pew?

Ah, well.

I did an earlier blog about Frost's poem Mowing. I actually like that poem a lot, whereas this one I find sort of off-putting. Though he tries to keep himself out of the argument, you can see that he harbors a kind of private patriotism which is "purer" than his fellow citizens.

The feminists don't get to co-opt Moore. We get her instead.