Who knew John Derbyshire appreciated poetry?
John Derbyshire, in case you're unaware, is one of the many blowhards over at the National Review's blog, The Corner, which is mined for stupidity treasure every day by many of the finest bloggers around. I don't head over there very often because, well, there's only so many hours in the day, and I spend too many of them online as it is.
But when I was at Pandagon this morning, I caught this little Derbyshire gem, and I couldn't pass up the chance to point out how even great modern poets are occasionally dumbasses, because you see, Derbyshire is making the same case that Robert Frost did in his poem "The Gift Outright."
Here's Derbyshire, to get us started in today's lesson.
As a footnote, it seems lexicographically wrong to me to describe the pre-1787 Americans as "immigrants." They were not moving from one nation to another, as there was no nation at the receiving end. They were settlers in an essentially empty land, mostly moving from one part of the British Empire to another.An essentially empty land, you say? Why one might even call it "unstoried, artless, unenhanced."
I teach Frost's poem in my Interpretation of Poetry classes in part because I think it's a good thing to take down the great poets a peg or two. I also do it because I think it's instructive to show today's late teens just how recently open bigotry was considered socially acceptable, even artful. (It's painfully surprising just how ignorant most young people are of the recent past.)
Frost's poem is easy to dismiss as a product of its time, or even as a holdover from the days of manifest destiny, and it would certainly be unfair to tarnish JFK with the ideas in this poem, as it wasn't even the poem Frost was supposed to read. But I don't imagine this poem was all that out of touch with mainstream thought in 1960.
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 will become.
The first thing my students generally notice is who's missing from the line "But we were England's, still colonials," largely because most of them are not of British ancestry. And it's obvious Derbyshire forgot that, too in his little aside. Of course, both Derbyshire and Frost also forgot that the British were hardly the only colonials who were in the area who made up the US. Set aside the Native Americans (as the two of them have)--you still have the Dutch, French, and Spanish as major powers in the colonial period who deeded themselves the land with "many deeds of war."
I can understand the sentiment of the person who emailed Derbyshire complaining about still being considered an immigrant even though his family has been here for ten generations. To a very limited extent, I even agree--I'm an American. That's how I identify. I can trace my 3/4 of my family tree back to the British Isles over a hundred-fifty years ago, but I am certainly not of that ancestry any longer. I do belong to this land, as did my parents and as does my daughter and whatever children I have in the future. But to argue that that somehow makes us not the children of immigrants is just stupid, because the only reason to make that claim is to other the people who want to come here now, to exclude them because they are from somewhere else.