On this day in 1963,1 Robert Frost died at the age of 88. You might think of him as Mr. New England, which is fair enough, but he was named for Robert E. Lee and born in San Francisco — North, South, and West, he contained within him all the sections and tried to speak for the nation.

And he wrote a great poem about America’s idea of the West, which he recited from memory at Kennedy’s inaugural:

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 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.

It’s much better than the poem he had written for the occasion, which he couldn’t read because of the light and the wind.2 So let us give thanks for inclement weather.

In death, Frost inspired Kennedy (or his speech-writers) to unusually good presidential literary criticism: “If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths.” And Frost gave Kennedy this advice: “not to let the Harvard in me get to be too important.”

Frost also, awesomely, went to Moscow in 1962 and recited “Mending Wall,” which of course begins, “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” At least we had classy culture warriors in those days.


1Ari’s doing a proper one, but it’s taking some time — so here’s a quickie.
2Weirdly, MSNBC gives the impression nobody had seen this poem till 2006; it had been published long before that — it was just the original paper that had strayed.