Robert Frost’s The Gift Outright is a classic example of his folksy, lyrical poetry based on nature. Rather than the typical format of describing the scene around him though, he reflects on who the scene belongs to. His choice to make the first line a sentence makes the first phrase seem factual and sets a serious tone for the rest of the poem. His opening sentence reads, “The land was ours before we were the land’s” reminded me of “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” introducing the interconnectedness between human life and the earth. Although I would like to believe this poem is meant to be about taking care of the earth and natural world, I think that it is written from the perspective of an imperialist. The consistent use of “ours” conveys the possessive nature of imperialists who claim the land as their birthright, their “Gift Outright”. The middle section of the poem addresses the aggressive theme of possessiveness of the earth. His repetitive use of “possessing” conveys the all-consuming greed that resulted from imperialism. “Possessed by what we now no more possessed” conveys that rather than cherishing the land, they were swallowed by their greed for something that was never theirs. In this way, the expansion of land made them “weak”. The weakness juxtaposes the idea that expansion creates strength. The combination of this contradiction and his deliberate choice not to punctuate creates a natural pause in the poem. “We were withholding from the land of the living” continues his rhythmic pattern of iambic pentameter and begins a series of alliterations that emphasize the consequence of greed. His second use of alliteration comes with “salvation in surrender” saying that the settlers were saved by their realization that wealth and prosperity was achieved not through pushing through progress, but by letting the earth do its work. That the earth was beautiful in its “unstoried and unenhanced”, pure form and would prove prosperous in time. Here he ends the poem with a classic ode to the beauty of nature in its untouched form, satirizing the idea that an industrial version would be preferable.
Marianne Moore’s What Are Years? seems an example of her early works as it utilizes complex imagery and prosodic patterns, themes of her early poetry. My initial interpretation of the poem was that Moore split the poem into three sections to reflect three stages of life (emulating themes of the “Voyage of Life Series” by Thomas Cole). I interpreted the first stanza as “innocent” childhood, the second as “struggling” young adulthood/adulthood, and the third as acceptance of “mortality” in late life. However, further analysis makes me think otherwise.
The opening lines begin with Moore’s existential, “unanswered question” of what makes us courageous. She asks why, in times of “resolute doubt” we soldier on and go about life despite the challenges before us. Her phrasing here jumps out. The word “resolute” creates such a final and sad tone that contrasts her chilling, final lines of the stanza, “in its defeat, stirs/the soul to be strong”. Her choice to separate the phrase elongates and suspends the sentence, first emphasizing the two timid descriptors, “defeat” and “stirs” then the conflicting, powerful alliteration of “soul” and “strong”.
The second stanza is the narrative of vivid imagery of seeing “deep”, encapsulating the feeling of drowning and how she wrestles with the thought of death. Her choice of the word “accedes” creates rhythm in the stanza that causes a natural slowing of the poem until it picks up speed again with imagery of “imprisonment” and panic as death looms. The poem continues at this speed with struggling until the “sea in a chasm” occurs when suddenly she is flying above worry and has a revelation that mortality is what makes life worth living, what makes “continuing” worth it.
The third stanza uses the metaphor of the “imprisoned”, “caged” bird conjuring similar themes of Emily Dickinson’s Hope Is a Thing With Feathers. The bird “steels” his form straight up once again conveying vivid imagery of picking oneself up and moving on and even “mighty singing”. “Mighty” inspired me and created a lift and pause in the poem, conveying a newfound confidence and resolution. The ending lines are my favorite, though, contrasting the satisfaction of mortality and eternal joy. This perfectly wraps up the poem. I think that she tried to convey that one can spend their whole life trying to do everything right, outsmarting mortality and feeling satisfaction. But, they may never achieve true joy that lives longer than the human life as it can only be achieved through accepting mortality and making the most of it.
Emily Dickinson’s 320 deals with themes of death which is somewhat predictable for Dickinson, but what makes this poem different, is that this poem delves into the competing narratives of religious teachings and her personal instincts. 320 begins with imagery of attractive light but describes it as oppressive and of heft. Here she expresses the heavy weight that the light casts which I interpret as Heavenly imagery. The weight of heaven reflects the weight that death has on her mind (which is often the case for Dickinson). The last line of the stanza says that the light is “Of Cathedral Tunes” and at this point, she is contrasting the Church’s narrative of death and instincts of death. Here, she breaks her rhyme scheme (which is generally ABCB in this poem), reflecting her break from the church’s values. In the following stanza, she elaborates on her personal views of death, claiming that one who dies and goes to heaven with “Heavenly Hurt” (capitalized to imply that its a proper noun since it is religious imagery). Dickinson also claims that faith should be in tandem with soul searching, or “internal difference where Meanings are”. “Meaning” is capitalized here to create a pause for further emphasis as it is elaborated on later. The following stanza discusses her frustration with the church’s teachings, deeming it “Seal Despair”, implying that “none can teach” these meanings. The final stanza concludes with the personal experience of death. Dickinson says “the landscape listens-“. The hyphen suspends the phrase for a moment, reflecting nature’s pause to observe death. Then, the death goes “like the Distance”, proving that only in that time, can one truly find their own truth and meaning.
Baym, Nina, and Robert S. Levine, eds. The Norton Anthology of American Literature. 8th ed. Vol. C. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2012. Print.
A full version of her poem can be found here