When asked what his favorite memory was of the JFK inauguration, my husband would faithfully respond, "Hearing Frost."
For it was on that January morning in Washington something of consequence, amid the monuments, the snow, the cold. The poet.
January 20, 1961.
"The land was ours before we were the land's" weren't the words intended to be recited that day, but weather and age conspired to eclipse the original reading for the Kennedy inauguration, and Robert Frost slipped into his comfort and recited from memory "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 (will) become.
Fate put the poet there with the politician, and the words. Frost had predicted Kennedy's election, "a Puritan from Massachusetts," some months earlier, and Kennedy had responded with a telegraphed invitation to participate in the inauguration.
Frost's prompt reply set the stage.
"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."
The young president's request was "The Gift Outright," which he thought appropriate in stature to the occasion, yet Frost composed new lines of verse which were never read, lines of completely different weight and tone, originally titled "The Dedication," later retitled by Frost, "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration."
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 devine
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 amibition 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.
For some, the lines of "Dedication" seem silly. Un-Frostian. Not the meeting of man and moment.
Just two years and some days later the poet was gone, and the president who would soon follow eulogized him.
"When power corrupts, poetry cleanses."
I do not know what stirs the stars, how they settle, align, or light the night, why a young Massachusetts senator was at the East Portico that day, an elder statesmen poet narrating history, "that granite figure" that was Frost. I do not know what inspired my husband to offer to break a window for Jacqueline Kennedy's comfort in a stately hotel reception on the campaign trail in Wisconsin in 1960, which ultimately led to his own invitation to the inauguration a few months later.
They are gone, all three. These granite figures.
History imposed its weight on that moment, and might have been altered if Frost had read his intended lines, later handwritten and gifted to the young president, framed by a loving and all too soon to be widowed wife to be the first thing hung in the White House, January 23, 1961.
For further listening:
October 26, 1963, Amherst College
For further viewing: