March 18, 2018

Presidential Panegyrics

On this day in 1961 Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" at John F. Kennedy's inauguration, initiating the short, Democrats-only tradition of Presidential panegyrics. Many eras and empires have been fond of such commemorations, but the American suspicion of poetry or presidents has restricted the list of Inauguration Day poets to just four: Frost, James Dickey (Carter), Maya Angelou (Clinton) and Miller Williams (Clinton).

It is a list Frost almost did not make, for a handful of reasons. He was coming up to his eighty-seventh birthday, and some doubted that he could manage the occasion, especially outdoors in January. Kennedy himself had the opposite worry when the idea of Frost's participation was first proposed to him: "Oh no. You know that Robert Frost always steals any show he is part of." But the invitation was extended, and Frost, who warmed to all spotlights, readily accepted. He at first declined Kennedy's suggestion to write a special poem for the day, though he agreed to alter the last line of his "The Gift Outright" to give it a new emphasis. Then, at the last minute, Frost thought he'd compose some new verse after all, an introductory "Dedication" to be spoken before the other poem. He worked on this into the early morning hours of January 20th, getting it typed first at his hotel and then, because worried about his eyesight and the faintness of the copy, retyped in larger, darker letters just before the ceremony.

When it was finally Frost's turn to speak, the wind, the cold and the glare from a fresh snowfall made even the large-type version difficult, and he stumbled to a full stop after just a few lines, even with Lyndon Johnson stepping up to help shield his notes. Or perhaps Frost knew, as Louis Untermeyer said later, that the "Dedication" was "the worst thing he ever wrote." In any case, the beloved poet of nature and naturalness saw his opportunity: he dumped the contrived introduction and recited "The Gift Outright" from memory, with feeling. And at the last line, which speaks of America "Such as she was, such as she would become," he gave a Merlin-in-Camelot ring to the change which Kennedy had requested: "...Such as she was, such as she would become, has become ... and for this occasion let me change that to ... what she will become." The crowd was charmed, and the next day's newspapers said that Frost had indeed stolen the show, even from Kennedy's "Ask not what your country can do for you..." speech -- which, many claim, Kennedy stole from the poet Kahlil Gibran.

Frost thanked Kennedy afterwards for his opportunity, and expressed his hope that, together, they had started something: "Poetry and power is the formula for another Augustan Age." This was a wish that Kennedy might give modern writers the sort of encouragement which Augustus Caesar gave to Virgil, Horace and the others in the Golden Age of Roman literature -- rather than the sort of discouragement which, a tyrant earlier, had been given to Cicero, whose head and hands had been nailed to the Rostra in the Roman Forum, and through whose tongue pins had been driven, to discourage others from saying in public what Cicero had said about Anthony, his murderer:
    But what frightens me ... is the possibility that you yourself may disregard the true path of glory, and instead consider it glorious to possess more power than all your fellow-citizens combined - preferring that they should fear you rather than like you. If that is what you think, your idea of where the road of glory lies is mistaken. For glory consists of being regarded with affection by one's country, earning praise and respect and love; whereas to be feared and disliked, on the other hand, is unpleasant and hateful and debilitating and precarious.
    (The First Philippic Against Marcus Antonius, trans. D. R. Shackleton Bailey)

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