The Quarrel with Ourselves: Robert Penn Warren’s “World of Action and Liability”

Natasha Trethewey | March/April 2015

Natasha Trethewey

This essay was adapted from Natasha Trethewey’s final lecture as Poet Laureate of the United States.

My Mississippi, my native land, with its brutal history of oppression and its terrible beauty, hurt me into poetry, rooting me at the crossroads of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, staking my claim there.

It has been my highest honor to have served the nation and poetry at this particular historical moment—the 150th and 50th anniversaries of the Civil War and major victories of the Civil Rights Movement—and it seems altogether fitting to consider the legacies of these histories in my own calling as a poet; the legacy of my Southern predecessor Robert Penn Warren on American poetry and the laureateship; and the role of American poetry in remembering our shared past and contending with it in our ongoing pursuit of social justice.


I was born in Mississippi in 1966, the child of an interracial marriage when such marriages were still illegal there and in as many as twenty states in the nation, so I see my coming into being and my coming to being as a writer, as deeply rooted in the intersection of these two histories, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement. I was born on the uniquely southern holiday, Confederate Memorial Day, one hundred years after it was first celebrated, as an act of defiance, in my home state. I was born in a South still trying to hang on to the vestiges of Jim Crow, two years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and a year after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, in the aftermath of Freedom Summer—the summer several young men entered a night in Mississippi from which they did not return: James Earl Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner—three Civil Rights workers abducted and murdered in Neshoba County. I witnessed, as a small child, the burning of a cross beside my grandmother’s house—an act of terrorism that might have been directed at us, the interracial family living there, or at the black church across the street where, during the day, volunteers were holding a voter registration drive for disenfranchised African American citizens. Perhaps it was because of both. I was born in a state that was home to the region called “the most southern place on earth” for its history of violence, racism, and injustice—a place that, nonetheless, I love because it made me. “Mad Ireland hurt you into poetry,” W.H. Auden wrote in his memorial to William Butler Yeats. My Mississippi, my native land, with its brutal history of oppression and its terrible beauty, hurt me into poetry, rooting me at the crossroads of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, staking my claim there. Contemplating that crossroads, that intersection of two of the most defining moments in American history, I think of the work of Robert Penn Warren, his relationship to history, to his native South, and to the nation—its noble ideals laid down in our founding documents. “So, too, we might say,” wrote poet Edward Hirsch, “that the madness of any country’s brutality has wounded its poets into poetry.” It might seem odd to those who think of Warren as simply an unreconstructed Agrarian and a poet who expressed notions of black inferiority in such poems as “Pondy Woods,” published in 1942—the line spoken by a buzzard to a black fugitive: “Nigger, your breed ain’t metaphysical”—that I would look to his work as a model of evolving enlightenment and as an example of poetry’s way of showing us the possibility of justice and equality. What I want to point out is that we miss something of the transformative power of language across time and space when we consider only certain works in isolation and not a writer’s body of work across a lifetime with its revisions and repudiations, as well as its holding fast to some earlier iterations. Warren’s permutations throughout his work are particularly relevant to our historical moment in which the pursuit of justice is frequently undermined by a lack of accountability, both personal and societal.


When Robert Penn Warren was invited to the Library of Congress in 1986 to be the first Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, after an act of Congress had officially renamed the post in order to increase its visibility, he was not new to the office, having already served as the Poetry Consultant from 1944-1945. In his early remarks Warren indicated his unwillingness to allow the name change to alter the role of the poet at the Library. He would not be a “hired applauder” he declared, or write poems about the president’s pets. As a consultant, he had been among the poets such as James Dickey, William Meredith, William Jay Smith, and Gwendolyn Brooks who wrote poems that addressed social issues in our troubled national history: war, racial injustice, the forced relocation of Native Americans. Indeed, in becoming our nation’s first official poet laureate, he insisted on the distance inherent in the post that freed American poets to write whatever they must and freed them from the duty, as in other nations, of writing poems glorifying or celebrating the government. Instead he represented, in his work as a poet and public intellectual, someone deeply engaged with history—well positioned—whose voice could speak to contemporary issues of justice in the most elegant language we have. Perhaps more than any other laureate Warren also represented, in his own public life and art—in the many years between his first term in the library and his second nearly a half-century later—a blueprint for change, the ongoing pursuit of a more just society, and the role of poetry in that pursuit.


Warren was born in Guthrie, Kentucky in 1905, grandson of a confederate soldier, inheritor of a southern culture and ideology rooted in notions of racial difference, and predicated upon segregation and social inequality. But the young man who wrote the essay “The Briar Patch,” what he would later call “a cogent and humane defense of segregation,” for the 1930 publication of I’ll Take My Stand: The South and the Agrarian Tradition, was not the same one to become our nation’s first poet laureate. In that early essay, already exhibiting more progressive leanings than his Fugitive/Agrarian colleagues, Warren still had a long way to go. The journey of his ongoing ideological evolution can be easily charted in his public activities and his nonfiction prose—his participation in the Civil Rights Movement, the publication (at the war’s hundredth anniversary in 1961) of his powerful meditation The Legacy of the Civil War with its pointed critique of white Americans, south and north, who were “evading reality” not only of the past but also of the contemporary moment (that is, the Civil Rights Movement) by means of what he called “the great alibi” for southerners and “the treasury of virtue” for northerners. Warren makes use of a third-person narrative structured as a would-be interview to pose his most difficult questions. Of the Southerner, who might have stood for Warren himself, he writes: “At the same time, the Southerner’s attitude toward the situation is frozen. He may say, in double-vision of self-awareness, that he wishes he could feel and act differently, but cannot. I have heard a Southerner say: ‘I pray to feel different, but so far I can’t help it.’”

Furthermore, he writes:

As he hears his own lips parroting the sad clichés of 1850 does the Southerner sometimes wonder if the words are his own? Does he ever, for a moment, feel the desperation of being caught in some great Time-machine, like a treadmill, and doomed to an eternal effort without progress? Or feel, like Sisyphus, the doom of pushing a great stone up a hill only to have the weight, like guilt, roll back over him, over and over again? When he lifts his arm to silence protest, does he ever feel, even fleetingly, that he is lifting it against some voice deep in himself?

The sentiment of that last sentence—the reckoning with some voice deep in himself—is the bedrock of Warren’s work. It appears earlier in another work of nonfiction, his slender volume Segregation: the Inner Conflict in the South, published in 1956, two years after the Supreme Court, in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, ruled that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. Warren embarked on a journey back to his south to interview the people there, to take stock of what they were thinking in the aftermath of the landmark decision. Here the technique of the interview guiding the meditation provides a glimpse into Warren’s own inner conflict. In the introduction to the book he asserts that he makes the journey “to look at the faces, to hear the voices, to hear, in fact, the voices in my own blood.” For Warren, the trip is a pilgrimage. After relaying several of the interviews he conducted throughout his journey, Warren closes with one last interview that, he declared, “I wish to put on record,” presenting it “by question and answer.” Early on, the interviewee tries to explain, by way of a story, the inheritance of a troubled history that—in the absence of conscious action against perpetuating the vestiges of that history in the contemporary moment—makes it difficult for white Americans to live with themselves. He describes an elderly white woman “who grew up in a black county, but a county where relations had been, as they say, good.” He continues:

She had a fine farm and a good brick house, and when she got old she sort of retired from the world. The hottest summer weather and she would lock all the doors and windows at night, and lie there in the airless dark. But sometimes she’d telephone that somebody was burning the Negroes out there on her place. She could hear their screams. Something was going on in her old head which in another place and time would not have been going on in her old head. She had never, I should think, seen an act of violence in her life. But something was going on in her head.

And then,

Question: Do you think it is chiefly the red-neck who causes violence?
Answer: No. He is only the cutting edge. He, too, is a victim. Responsibility is a seamless garment. And the northern boundary of that garment is not the Ohio River.
Question: Are you for desegregation?
Answer: Yes

—(the word presented emphatically, in italics—a repudiation).

This final conversation, covering a range of contemporary concerns about and historical issues raised by the new civil-rights advancing legislation—from the fear of racial amalgamation to the way that the South, and thus the nation, must now learn to live—ends with a single line. Warren writes: This is, of course, an interview with myself. It is in that final sentence that we can measure the way Warren’s persona as a public intellectual in his works of social criticism is inextricably linked to what many critics hail as his best, most significant work as a poet. By the time Warren published Segregation, he had already begun his profound reckoning with the impact of history on the American imagination, making use of the formal scaffolding of the interview and the rhetorical device—his argument with the self—in the stunning book-length poem, Brother to Dragons, which appeared in print, the first time, in 1953. “We make of the quarrel with others rhetoric,” wrote poet William Butler Yeats, “but of the quarrel with ourselves poetry.” Warren’s social criticism, his rhetoric, certainly had the power to influence the thinking of others, but I argue that the quarrel with himself, his poetry, is a grander model for displaying his process of ideological evolution, and thus even more influential: it allows us to see ourselves in the mirror of his own reckoning.


The writing of the poem, the long quarrel with himself, resulted in that preparedness and allows us to see the poet as a public figure in the midst of changing—an elegant blueprint for enlightenment and the pursuit of justice.

During his time at the Library of Congress in 1944-1945, Robert Penn Warren would have likely begun to be aware of African Americans’ increasing expectations for justice—and in that period of rising civil rights activism, he began to use the holdings there to research the historical actors and the event that are at the center of Brother to Dragons: a Tale in Verse and Voices. That central event—the dismemberment and murder of a young slave by his owner, Lilburn Lewis, nephew to Thomas Jefferson—occurred in Warren’s native Kentucky in 1811, and as a boy he had heard the folklore surrounding the story. He began his preliminary research in the archives of a county courthouse in Smithfield, Kentucky, looking through the transcripts of Lewis’s trial. The poem includes many voices; the characters, all but one of them long dead, include Thomas Jefferson, Lilburn Lewis, his wife and brothers, Lucy Lewis, sister to Jefferson and their mother, their father Colonel Charles Lewis, the slave to whom Warren gives the name John, an imagined slave woman, Aunt Cat, who had served as a wet-nurse to Lilburn, and Meriwether Lewis—who, with Clark, carried out the expedition to open the Louisiana Territory. The final character is called R.P.W., representing the poet himself—who is in conversation with the rest of the characters.

In his notes to the book, Warren details some of his findings in the historical record, as well as the absences, and what cannot be known explicitly. It is Warren’s contention, based on research and conversations with historians, that Jefferson most likely knew of the events in his extended family but would not or could not bring himself to say anything about them; that is, to record anything about them in print. Thus, Warren must rely on speculation, a tool not foreign to historians, to piece together a narrative concerned not only with what happened (as documented in the records) but why it could have happened. As such, Warren attempts to examine not only the facts of the past, but also to historicize human nature, to consider the actions of human beings not in a vacuum but as a response to culture and society. This is one kind of work that poetry can do. For Warren, it involves a certain amount of invention, a way to focus on a larger truth about the human condition rather than merely the facts of it.

Of the liberties he takes in the poem Warren writes:

I know that any discussion of the relation of this poem to its historical materials is, in one perspective, irrelevant to its value; and it could be totally accurate as history and still not worth a dime as a poem. I am trying to write a poem, not a history, and therefore have no compunction about tampering with non-essential facts. But poetry is more than fantasy and is committed to the obligation of trying to say something, however obliquely, about the human condition. Therefore, a poem dealing with history is no more at liberty to violate what the writer takes to be the spirit of his history than it is at liberty to violate what he takes to be the nature of the human heart.

Furthermore, he writes: “Historical sense and poetic sense should not, in the end, be contradictory, for if poetry is the little myth we make, history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” Warren convenes his cast of historical characters to have a conversation with each other in which they not only describe the details of the recorded event, the brutal murder and some other events in its wake—the burning of the dismembered body, the trial—but also to dramatize the workings of the psyche, that is, to have a quarrel not only with the characters involved in the event, but also with the self. This is also the work of poetry: it allows us, as readers, to inhabit the consciousness of others, expanding our capacity for empathy.

The poem opens with the voice of Thomas Jefferson, who begins by describing the difficulty of letting go of the past:

My name is Jefferson. Thomas. I
Lived. Died. But
Dead, cannot lie down in the
Dark. Cannot, though dead, set
My mouth to the dark stream that I may unknow
All my knowing. Cannot, for if,
Kneeling in that final thirst, I thrust
Down my face, I see come glimmering upward,
White, white out of the absolute dark of depth,
My face. And it is only human.

This opening imagery—Jefferson unable to drink from the river of forgetting so as to rest because he is confronted again and again with his own face, forced to see it mirrored in the water—sets the tone for the poem’s reckoning: these historical actors, agents of their own suffering, in a place not unlike purgatory—what Warren called “no place, any time”— are doomed to relive the tragic events of their connected lives. The next character to speak, to respond to Jefferson, is R.P.W.: a two-line interruption, thus setting up the main discussion between the two of them, who, in many ways, represent two quarreling halves of the poet himself. In this way the voices of the other characters are there not only to tell their own parts of the story, but also to serve a function not unlike that of a Greek chorus: adding to the story, providing more insight, provoking the conversation.

...poetry is concerned not only with the past. It presents a way to look backward and forward at once, showing a world that is possible, what we can work toward.

It is the character of Jefferson who introduces one of Warren’s ongoing themes present in both his poetry and his prose: the idea that the burden of troubled history is settled down in the blood, that we are inheritors of the past, perhaps unable to escape its trap, as in these lines:

Time came, we signed the document, went home.
I had not seen the eyes of that bright apparition.
I had been blind with light.

I did not know its eyes were blind.

The fat was in the fire.
And I who once said, all liberty
Is bought with blood, must now say,
All truth is bought with blood, and the blood is ours,
But only truth can make us free—
Free from the fool lie.
And doom is always domestic, it purrs like a cat,
And the absolute traitor lurks in some sweet corner of the blood.

Here Warren is contemplating not only the part of human nature capable of blindness, or racial prejudice and oppression—perhaps even violence or a willed ignorance of violence—based on passed-down ideologies, but also this capability present at the same time in someone idealistic, a great thinker of noble thoughts about democracy, like Jefferson, whose job had been to set down those noble thoughts on paper in our nation’s founding documents. For as much as the poem is about the past, it is also about the contemporary moment in which Warren found himself disillusioned with the failures of our nation in terms of “justice for all,” the idealism of our national documents, of Jefferson and what he stood for. Throughout the poem, Warren allows the characters R.P.W. and Jefferson to alternately articulate what, in philosophical musing, can sound like an apologist’s position, which maintains justification for certain actions—particularly for the violence at the center of the poem—or maintains that the blame lay somewhere else, upon the victim. For example, Jefferson: “We are each a child of his own age’s womb;” “Oh what’s / one nigger more or less—except he’s all, / And all responsibility now spreads. / Its spreads like a stain in water, and—;”

Then, R.P.W.: “Well, / There’s the not unfashionable notion to consider / That John [the slave] was in a strange way responsible.”

And again later, R.P.W.: “No don’t blame me. I just report a notion. / The victim / Becomes the essential accomplice, provocateur—… / And the real victim / Is he whose hand was fatally elected to give the stroke, / But is innocent.”

Reading the harrowing account of the murder, and then the different speakers’ ideas about who’s guilty and who’s innocent, is both compelling and almost too hard to take. On one hand it seems as if Warren is confronting the notion that one must accept responsibility for being linked by blood and position to the oppressors, for carrying forward those ideological positions, and on the other hand he is struggling with the faulty notion that the victims of violence and oppression are as much to blame in provoking the actions of the oppressor, thus rendering the oppressor a victim too. The problem here is the suggestion that the oppressor has no agency, no choice, and that the different forms of victimhood, as defined by R.P.W., are morally equivalent. But this is not where he leaves the argument. This is only a particular step along the path toward a different vision of things, perhaps unfinished, but hard-won nonetheless. Seamus Heaney has pointed out that “necessary” poetry must always “touch the base of our sympathetic nature while taking in at the same time the unsympathetic nature of the world to which that nature is constantly exposed.” And that poetry has the “ability—and responsibility—to say what happens.” Warren’s poem, charting its difficult territory, does this work. That he explores these ideas in poems and later applies them in the turning point in Segregation—in which he wrote, of the Southerner, “he is trapped in history,” and then: “Or is he?”—is evidence that his role as a poet concerned with history and its effects on the American imagination is a necessary scaffolding for his role as public intellectual. We see him grappling with difficult and contradictory ideas, moving from the poems, as initial contemplation, to his prose, thus armed with a moral authority to project outward, in rhetoric, the argument with his nation—an authority he would not have had without the quarrel with the self that makes poetry.

Furthermore, in Warren’s poem, we see also his willingness to show an unattractive part of the self—his use of base and essentialist notions to describe and derogatory language to refer to blacks not only by Jefferson and the other characters, but also by R.P.W., standing in for poet himself: “But niggers don’t mind heat. At least, not much;” “poor nigger stonework, generations gone;” “spirit of the nigger boy John.” When the revised edition of Brother to Dragons was released in 1979, these elements remained intact not, I think, because Warren maintained those views, but because he was concerned with creating a true record of man, that is, of his quarrel with himself, by avoiding a revision that would amount to erasure of the past and would present his current self in a tidy, more positive light. In this reiteration I see Warren’s ability to confront his past, to connect himself with previously held positions that he has come to see as morally wrong, his recognition that there is a cruelty in language used to diminish and dehumanize—and that where there is willingness to use language in such a way exists some potential for other cruelty, as implied in these lines spoken by Jefferson’s nephew Isham Lewis recalling the conversation with Lilburn Lewis after the crime: “Well, Ishey-Boy, we sort of killed the nigger! / And me: ‘But just a nigger’—and my breath got choked— / ‘Just a nigger you said….’”

We see also, in the following lines, the character R.P.W. reflecting on his interactions with blacks back home, his way of being in relation to them, in order to question his cultural inheritances, his ideological positions.

Who doesn’t know down home
The intolerable eye of the sly one, and the sibilant
Confabulation below
The threshold of comprehension.

What the hell did you say?
Me, Boss? You mean me?
Who the hell you think I mean?
Me, Boss?
Yes, you—what the hell was that you said?
Boss, I did’n say nuthen.
Always nothing, but always something,
And in the deep vessel of yourself now the dark
Dregs are disturbed, uncoil now, rise
To murk the rational ichor of innocence.
No use to say you’ve dealt justly with individuals
Or held to the most advanced views on the race question.
Do you think the Dark Inquisitor can be deflected
By trivialities like that?

In the evocation of “the intolerable eye” we can measure an implied discomfort with that knowing gaze of the blacks—a discomfort rooted in the difficult historical relationships whereby that eye indicts.

This meditation is among the many ways that Warren’s work promotes a vision of the world in which justice reigns, in which we are all held accountable for failures of imagination and empathy, and where we can identify a point along the line to strive for, the arc of the moral universe. Poetry is a means to get there. Near the close of the poem, Jefferson says:

One day I wrote to Adams…

I wrote and said
That the dream of the future is better than
The dream of the past.

How could I hope to find courage to say
That without the fact of the past, no matter
How terrible, we cannot dream the future?

It seems to me that these lines speak to the role of poetry in reckoning with our history and imagining our future, for poetry is concerned not only with the past. It presents a way to look backward and forward at once, showing a world that is possible, what we can work toward. These lines too: “but what is knowledge / Without the intrinsic mediation of the heart?” By the close of the book-length poem, we have arrived at a new reckoning. In the final lines, voiced by R.P.W., he returns to reflecting upon a journey he made, earlier in the poem, back to the landscape of his native Kentucky, and the place of that unthinkable violence—the place that made him, hurt him into a most necessary reckoning in his poetry.

And so I stood on the headland and stared at the river
In the last light of December’s, and the day’s declension.
I thought of the many dead and the places where they lay
I looked at the shrunken ruin, and the trees leafless.
The winter makes things small. All things draw in.

It is strange how the shift of scale may excite the heart.

I leaned above the ruin and in my hand picked up
Some two or three pig-nuts, with the husks yet on.
I put them in my pocket. I went down.

Perhaps never to come back, for I did not know
What here remained, at least for me;
And to this day have not gone back, but hold
In my heart, that landscape.

I crossed the evening barnlot, opened
The sagging gate, and was prepared
To go into the world of action and liability.
I had long lived in the world of action and liability.
But now I passed the gate into a world

Sweeter than hope in that confirmation of last light.


... he [Robert Penn Warren] represented, in his work as a poet and public intellectual, someone deeply engaged with history—well positioned—whose voice could speak to contemporary issues of justice in the most elegant language we have.

Like Heaney, Warren saw the connection between poetry and responsibility, “the world of action and liability.” He tells us at the end of the poem that he is now prepared to go into that world, though he had long lived in it—without, perhaps, the full awareness of his own limitations, nor the full commitment to living a life of connectedness and responsibility. The writing of the poem, the long quarrel with himself, resulted in that preparedness and allows us to see the poet as a public figure in the midst of changing—an elegant blueprint for enlightenment and the pursuit of justice. Ultimately, history is presented in Warren’s work not only as a conveyance of facts. What is fabricated, imagined, speculated serves to effect the mediation of the heart that poetry gives us—a way to delve deeper by not only saying what happened, but in so doing, attempting also to answer why it happened, to provide a record of the human condition. As poet Adrienne Rich said: one does have a choice to become “consciously historical—that is, a person who tries for memory and connectedness against amnesia and nostalgia, who tries to describe her or his journeys.” And further that, in a larger sense, “historical amnesia is starvation of the imagination” which no ongoing pursuit of knowledge can survive. Warren makes the choice to be consciously historical, and whether or not his early work bears witness to racist or unreconstructed ideas, and whether or not he reached a point of complete transformation matters less than the journey he undertakes and sets down on paper for us to see.


Reading Warren showed me how to contend, in my collection, Native Guard, with my own history, a history of race and the struggle for justice in the American South and in the nation as a whole, and how to make the quarrel I had with my country—about our collective forgetting and cultural amnesia—a struggle ultimately with myself over the responsibility of remembering and memorialization. Reading Warren, I see the scaffolding of a tradition in American poetry of turning to history in order to deal with difficult knowledge, to grapple with ongoing issues of justice, to reflect upon how and what we remember, how the images of our history—that knowledge—rooted like blood in the body, must be contended with again and again, to keep us ever vigilant lest we forget.

I will close with a few poems that have a connection to the Civil Rights Movement. Cornelius Eady’s “Emmett Till’s Glass-top Casket” reckons with forgetting—in a larger sense, a kind of cultural neglect—and a symbol for the necessity of remembering. Emmett Till was the fourteen-year-old boy abducted and murdered in 1955 by Roy Bryant and  J.W. Milam (who would later publicly describe their crime) for allegedly whistling at Byrant’s wife in their grocery store. Not long ago Till’s body was exhumed for DNA testing and his former glass-top casket, which his mother Mamie Till Mobley buried him in so that, as she said then, “the world could see,” was abandoned and forgotten.

Emmett Till’s Glass-top Casket

By the time they cracked me open again, topside,
    abandoned in a toolshed,
I had become another kind of nest. Not many people connect
    possums with Chicago,

       but this is where the city ends, after all, and I float still,
         after the footfalls fade and the
       roots bloom around us. The fact was, everything that worked
    for my young man

         worked for my new tenants. The fact was, he had been
            gone for years. They lifted him from my
         embrace, and I was empty, ready. That’s how the
               possums found me, friend,

          dry-docked, a tattered mercy hull. Once I held a boy
              who didn’t look like a boy. When they
          finally remembered, they peeked through my clear top. Then
          their wild surprise.

(“Emmett Till’s Glass-top Casket,” first published in the April 5, 2010 issue of the New Yorker. This poem also appeared in the Best American Poetry Series 2011. Forthcoming in the chapbook Singing While Black by Cornelius Eady, published by Kattywompus Press in April 2015. Reprinted by permission of the author.)

Eady’s poem reminds us not only of the horror of Till’s body—his beaten-to-beyond-recognition face—“a boy who didn’t look like a boy,” but also the dangers of forgetting, too. It is a powerful assertion of the role of poetry in the remembrance of and reckoning with our past.

Reading Warren, i see the scaffolding of a tradition in American poetry of turning to history in order to deal with difficult knowledge, to grapple with ongoing issues of justice, to reflect upon home and what we remember...

Finally: two poems in conversation, one by Robert Frost, the other by Elizabeth Sewell. Sewell, a former British citizen, migrated as a young woman to the United States where she spent the rest of her life. She was teaching at Tougaloo College in the 1960s when Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, the three Civil Rights workers, were abducted and murdered. Her poem “The Land was Theirs Before They Were the Land’s” makes use of a line, in slightly different form, from Robert Frost’s famous poem “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.

(“The Gift Outright” from the book THE POETRY OF ROBERT FROST edited by Edward Connery Lathem. Copyright © 1969, copyright © 1942 by Robert Frost, copyright © 1970 by Lesley Frost Ballantine. Used by permission of Henry Holt and Company. All rights reserved.)

I can imagine Elizabeth Sewell, having listened to the inauguration of JFK, or read somewhere those words, and thinking of Mississippi, of injustice, people denied their full citizenship and civil rights, asking: where are the words to contend with that? Her poem, “The Land Was Theirs Before They Were the Land’s,” responds to the notion of manifest destiny and the price of American liberty, furthering the conversation in a way that directly engages with those tumultuous times.

The Land Was Theirs Before They Were the Land’s

And the sunsets there are as beautiful
As anywhere else in the world,
Pure fire at first which sinks
And from ground to zenith rises a blush of rose
Above which the solemn blue
Attends and darkens

So they took the three young men out of the station wagon
Which they later burned

And you watch the glow minute by minute,
Wine-juice draining down the universe,
The huge purple grape of the sky
Pricked on the needle
Of one incredible star

So they faced each other
And there are some who will know
The first terrible plunge of fear,
Then the quick careful rebinding of the  self,
The readiness, in silence

And then comes the night, black, black-intense,
And the breeze puffs river and creek smells
Over the moist black earth and the marshes
And the stars go expanding in the vaporous dark
And the miles of quiet

So they begin to work them over, the three,
But most the dark one,
Bones smashed like sugarcane
In a molasses of blood,
Reduced them, young man by young man,
To a sobbing retching mass, partly conscious,
Till the three hearts shuddered and stopped
To the five bullets they shared, unevenly

And the dawns there are white and poignant,
New sun slopes down on to soaking dew,
Long oblique colourless rays bursting through trees and hanging moss,
And one remembers such a sharp steamy morning
And a small white Mississippi cat
Prancing over the high wet grass and the misty beams and shadows
Purposeful and absurd and sweet

So they stamped down the untidy holes in the ramp
Of the half-built dam
And left the three, still warm and already rotting,
To be thrust deeper and deeper into that hot earth
By the innocent machines
While they went back as a matter of course
To their homes and their business,
To slow speech with human beings,
To wiping their little children’s faces
Sticky after their dinner,
To the conjugal bed

And now irrevocably and for ever
The land is theirs
Who gave themselves and were given,
Who lay with that land a little space
In its beauty and their own

  So best we bethink ourselves
  How all of us (and we are all Mississippians)
  Will be called on to honour,
  In terms none can foresee,
  The gift outright

(“The Land Was Theirs Before The Were the Land’s” from the book Signs and Cities published by the University of North Carolina Press in 1968.)

Those last lines remind us of our own accountability—we are all Mississippians—and what it means to live in the world of action and liability. The poem lives up to its duty to say what happens and is a fitting tribute to those slain civil rights workers, martyrs in the movement for American freedom and justice, and a way to mark this moment—an anniversary that asks us to remember and to continue to do the work we must do in order to perfect our Union.


Natasha Trethewey, a past member of the AWP Board of Trustees, won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry for her 2006 collection Native Guard. She was appointed United States Poet Laureate in June 2012, and she is the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of English and Creative Writing at Emory University, where she also directs the Creative Writing Program.

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