Friday, November 22, 2013

50th Anniversary of Kennedy's Assassination: "The Gift Outright" by Robert Frost

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. 

By Robert Frost

John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, 50 years ago today. 

John F. Kennedy was the first president to have a poet read at his inauguration, a tradition which continues to this day.  And he invited Robert Frost, one of the giants of American literature. 

Robert Frost responded to JFK's invitation:

"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."

Frost composed a poem for the inauguration only two days before, but he encountered difficulties reading on the day. The poem he'd written for Kennedy was long and he hadn't memorised it. Frost was unable to read the poem because it was a snowy day and he experienced sun-strike coming off the snow.  

So, instead Frost recited "The Gift Outright", the poem reproduced above. Actually, Kennedy had earlier requested "The Gift Outright", a poem Frost knew by heart. He even went so far as to change the last line to "such as she will become" (again, in line with a request from Kennedy).

Much had lead up to Kennedy's assassination, the Vietnam War, protests, civil unrest, but, although Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated in office, it seems to me that that day America lost some of its innocence and youthful enthusiasm which it has never since regained.

I might add that Native Americans would, no doubt, feel uneasy about the frontier jingoism of Frost's poem. Certainly a counter view was posted on the Tuesday Poem hub recently:


  1. Thank you very much for this post. I love everything about it! It's a great poem, and your commentary strikes exactly the right notes. I'm of an age to remember exactly where I was when the news came ...

  2. Thanks for your kind comment, lillyanne.