Albert J. Von Frank: On "The Gift Outright"

The ominous thirteenth line of Robert Frost's "The Gift Outright" is made to appear all the more ominous by its entire lack of tonal and grammatical relationship with any thing else in the poem, an isolation signalled, of course, by the parentheses. Almost by itself this line justifies Frost's own characterization of the poem as being "about Revolutionary War," rather than, in a more general way, about the forming of a spiritual commitment to the land. Omit the thirteenth line and the poem is still a very good, though undoubtedly a very different, one—in some sense, perhaps, the "basic poem" to which the apparently gratuitous reminder of war is the poet's own gift outright. Moreover, the line is almost all that prevents us from taking the poem as simply an interesting, but finally conventional and unambiguous, patriotic effusion, something rather like what Frost must have had in mind when, in an unguarded moment, he compared the poem to "The Star-Spangled Banner." (See Reginald Cook, Robert Frost: A Living Voice [Amherst: Univ. of Massachusetts Press, 1974], p. 133.)

The key to the irony of the line is the curious phrase "The deed of gift," which means considerably more than merely "the act of giving." It is in fact a technical legal term, succinctly defined in Black's Law Dictionary as "A deed executed and delivered without consideration"—that is, without expectation of return, a legal promise to give or donate. Frost might have encountered this relatively esoteric term in a purely legal context, but there is reason to believe that it came to him from Marlowe's Doctor Faustus, from a passage in which Mephistopheles tells the learned Doctor that he "must bequeath" his soul "solemnly / And write a deed of gift with thine own blood . . ." (II, i. 35-36). The phrase occurs again at line 60 (Mephistopheles reminds Faustus to "Write it in manner of a deed of gift," presumably as opposed to the manner of a contract), and again at line 90 (Faustus calls the completed document "A deed of gift of body and of soul," though he shrewdly goes on to include "conditions").

Frost knew this play well, having on one occasion composed a shortened version for a production put on by his students at the Pinkerton Academy. In "New Hampshire" (quoting I. iii. 81), Frost claimed that "Kit Marlowe taught me how to say my prayers: / 'Why this is Hell, nor am lout of it." (ll. 242-243). In the play as in the poem, the distinctive peculiarities of the "deed of gift" are that it is sealed in blood and that it involves the giving of the self, body and soul.

Perhaps the significance of the influence consists mainly in the implication that Frost thought of the development of American national character in terms of the Faust myth. Certainly the allusion to Faustus' compact with Mephistopheles casts a lurid light over Frost's use of the verb "possess." If in Frost's implied scheme one may be "possessed" either by a debilitating God or by an invigorating Satan, it will be seen that we remained weak so long as our political, cultural, and, by extension, our spiritual allegiances were to England, a force which figures in the poem as a distant, invisible, yet powerful governing agency; we remained weak and dependent precisely because we were "withholding" ourselves spiritually from the tempting natural environment that was supporting us materially. As in Doctor Faustus, the "deed of gift" invokes the issue of "salvation," though in Frost's parable, the Faustian spirit of America is not merely strengthened temporarily and adventitiously as Faustus was, but instead is actually redeemed from weakness by a surrender to and immersion in the violent destructiveness of nature, self-reliance and war. 

From The Explicator 38:1 (Fall 1979) pp. 22-23.

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Criticism Overview
Title Albert J. Von Frank: On "The Gift Outright" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Albert J. Von Frank Criticism Target Robert Frost
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 22 Mar 2015
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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