On Art and Government: The Poem Robert Frost Didn’t Read at JFK’s Inauguration
“And this is no aristocratic joke / At the expense of negligible folk.”
By Maria Popova
In January of 1961, as John F. Kennedy’s inauguration approached, his would-be Secretary of the Interior suggested poet Robert Frost, who had been appointed consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress in 1958, participate in the ceremony as the first inaugural poet. JFK asked Frost to either compose a bespoke poem for the occasion or read “The Gift Outright,” written in the 1930s and published in 1942. Frost responded to JFK’s invitation with bold enthusiasm in a telegram sent the following day:
If you can bear at your age the honor of being made president of the United States, I ought to be able at my age to bear the honor of taking some part in your inauguration. I may not be equal to it but I can accept it for my cause — the arts, poetry — now for the first time taken into the affairs of statesmen. … I am glad the invitation pleases your family. It will please my family to the fourth generation and my family of friends and, were they living, it would have pleased inordinately the kind of Grover Cleveland Democrats I had for parents.
As Natalie Bober writes in A Restless Spirit: The Story of Robert Frost (public library), Frost had planned to read “The Gift Outright” — which he once described as “a history of the United States in a dozen [actually, sixteen] lines of blank verse” — but once he arrived in Washington two days prior to the inauguration, the 86-year-old poet got so absorbed in the excitement that he decided to compose an additional poem and recite it before the one already planned. Titled “Dedication,” it was at once a celebration of JFK’s slim victory over Nixon (“The greatest vote a people ever cast, / So close yet sure to be abided by.”) and a wider ode to the dream of including the arts in government at the dawn of the “next Augustan age,” framing investment in the arts as an essential part of patriotism and democracy.
Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
Today is for my cause a day of days.
And his be poetry’s old-fashioned praise
Who was the first to think of such a thing.
This verse that in acknowledgement I bring
Goes back to the beginning of the end
Of what had been for centuries the trend;
A turning point in modern history.
Colonial had been the thing to be
As long as the great issue was to see
What country’d be the one to dominate
By character, by tongue, by native trait,
The new world Christopher Columbus found.
The French, the Spanish, and the Dutch were downed
And counted out. Heroic deeds were done.
Elizabeth the First and England won.
Now came on a new order of the ages
That in the Latin of our founding sages
(Is it not written on the dollar bill
We carry in our purse and pocket still?)
God nodded his approval of as good.
So much those heroes knew and understood,
I mean the great four, Washington,
John Adams, Jefferson, and Madison
So much they saw as consecrated seers
They must have seen ahead what not appears,
They would bring empires down about our ears
And by the example of our Declaration
Make everybody want to be a nation.
And this is no aristocratic joke
At the expense of negligible folk.
We see how seriously the races swarm
In their attempts at sovereignty and form.
They are our wards we think to some extent
For the time being and with their consent,
To teach them how Democracy is meant.
“New order of the ages” did they say?
If it looks none too orderly today,
‘Tis a confusion it was ours to start
So in it have to take courageous part.
No one of honest feeling would approve
A ruler who pretended not to love
A turbulence he had the better of.
Everyone knows the glory of the twain
Who gave America the aeroplane
To ride the whirlwind and the hurricane.
Some poor fool has been saying in his heart
Glory is out of date in life and art.
Our venture in revolution and outlawry
Has justified itself in freedom’s story
Right down to now in glory upon glory.
Come fresh from an election like the last,
The greatest vote a people ever cast,
So close yet sure to be abided by,
It is no miracle our mood is high.
Courage is in the air in bracing whiffs
Better than all the stalemate an’s and ifs.
There was the book of profile tales declaring
For the emboldened politicians daring
To break with followers when in the wrong,
A healthy independence of the throng,
A democratic form of right divine
To rule first answerable to high design.
There is a call to life a little sterner,
And braver for the earner, learner, yearner.
Less criticism of the field and court
And more preoccupation with the sport.
It makes the prophet in us all presage
The glory of a next Augustan age
Of a power leading from its strength and pride,
Of young ambition eager to be tried,
Firm in our free beliefs without dismay,
In any game the nations want to play.
A golden age of poetry and power
Of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.
Once Frost completed the 42-line poem, however, he realized he had no time to memorize it — he’d have to read it instead. But on the white winter day of the ceremony, he ran into some meteorologically induced technical difficulties: The sun’s glare in the surface of the snow was so bright that the poet couldn’t read the text past the third line. Armed solely with his memory, he was able to recite the familiar “The Gift Outright” only. Per Kennedy’s request, however, Frost changed the last line from “Such as she would become” to the more assertively hopeful “Such as she will become.”
Though a recording from the actual inauguration doesn’t appear to survive, this reading by Frost himself approximates the occasion as fully as one could hope:
Published January 22, 2013