On this day, 87-year-old Robert Frost recited his poem “The Gift Outright” at the inauguration of President John F. Kennedy. Although Frost had written a new poem for the occasion, titled “Dedication,” faint ink in his typewriter made the words difficult to read, so he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory. The poem he intended to read is quite lengthy but you can read it at the above link.
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.
Frost was born in California in 1874, the son of a journalist who died when Frost was 11. Frost’s mother brought him to Massachusetts, where he graduated as co-valedictorian of his high school class. He attended Dartmouth and Harvard but didn’t complete a degree at either school. Three years after high school, her married his fellow high school valedictorian, Elinor White.
Frost tried unsuccessfully to run a New England farm, and the family, which soon included four children, struggled with poverty for two decades. Increasingly depressed, Frost moved his family to England to make a fresh start in 1912. There, he published a poetry collection called A Boy’s Will in 1913, which won praise from English critics and helped him win a U.S. publishing contract for his second book, North of Boston (1914). The American public took a liking to the 40-year-old Frost, who returned to the United States when World War I broke out and bought another farm in New Hampshire.
He continued to publish books, and taught and lectured at Amherst, University of Michigan, Harvard, and Dartmouth. He endured personal tragedy when a son committed suicide and a daughter had a mental breakdown. While Frost never graduated from a university, he had collected 44 honorary degrees before he died in 1963.