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Frost and the Kennedy Inauguration

PUBLISHED: January 15, 2009

Mike Chasar over at “Poetry and Popular Culture” has valiantly taken on the complicated evolution of the final line of Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright.” As Mike notes, the poem first appeared in VQR in 1942 with the final line “Such as she was, such as she might become” but appeared later that year, in the book A Witness Tree, with the final line “Such as she was, such as she would become.” And the poem appeared that way ever after—up until Frost recited it at John F. Kennedy’s inauguration.

Here’s where things get confusing. Official transcripts of the inauguration show that Frost changed the final line to: “Such as she was, such as she will become.” I say “official transcripts,” because they were prepared in advance of the event. Okay, I know, I know. The famous story is that Frost couldn’t read his poem “Dedication” from the faint transcript and launched into “The Gift Outright.” That’s kind of true; it’s kind of not. Here’s the full story…

In early December 1960, Kennedy called Frost personally to ask him to write a poem for the inauguration. Jay Parini, in Robert Frost: A Life, describes the scene beautifully:

The poet quickly dismissed the president-elect’s notion: “Oh, that could never happen,” he said. Kennedy followed with another suggestion: How about his reading “The Gift Outright,” changing the last line from “such as she would become” to “such as she will become,” making it a bit more optimistic and emphatic. “I suppose so,” Frost responded, hesitantly. Even a president-elect should not tamper with his work.

But Frost agreed—and even tipped off reporters in advance. He told Thomas G. Smith, a reporter for the Washington Evening Star, on December 19, 1960 (more than a month before the actual inauguration):

I’m going to tell you a secret. I’m going to change that word to “will” at Mr. Kennedy’s suggestion. I think it’s a good idea. I’m all for it. Nobody’s ever changed a word before, but I’m willing to do it.

In the month that followed, however, Frost decided to take a whack at writing a new poem after all, as a surprise—to everyone. He didn’t tell the president-elect, his handlers, nobody. He figured it would be okay, because he would read “Dedication” as a preface then read “The Gift Outright” as asked. Sure, why not, right?

So when Frost stepped to the podium with the words, “First a dedication,” a noticeable look of confusion rippled through the assembled dignitaries. Frost started in, but he couldn’t read his typescript and fumbled for a couple of minutes before giving up. “This was to be a preface to a poem I can say to you without seeing it,” he finally declared. “The poem goes like this …” And off he went on “The Gift Outright.”

But when he got to the final line, Frost—perhaps flustered, more likely grandstanding—didn’t read the line quite the way Kennedy had suggested. Instead, he recited: “Such as she was, such as she would become, has become, and I—and for this occasion let me change that to—what she will become.” All the newspapers and official programs reprinted the line simply as “such as she was, such as she will become,” because that was what the transcript said—and was what Frost was supposed to say.

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