Less than a month before his assassination, President John F Kennedy spoke at a convocation at Amherst College honoring Robert Frost, who had died earlier that year:
…In America our heroes have customarily run to men of large accomplishments. But today this college and country honors a man whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit; not to our political beliefs but to our insight; not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension.
The men who created power make an indispensable contribution to the nation’s greatness. But the men who question power make a contribution just as indispensable, especially when that questioning is disinterested.
For they determine whether we use power or power uses us. Ours national strength matters; but the spirit which informs and controls ours strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost
He brought an unsparing instinct for reality to bear on the platitudes and pieties of society. His sense of the human tragedy fortified him against self-deception and easy consolation. “I have been,” he wrote, “one acquainted with the night.”
And because he knew the midnight as well as the high noon, because he understood the ordeal as wells as the triumph of the human spirit, he gave his age strength with which to overcome despair.
At bottom he held a deep faith in the spirit of man. And it’s hardly an accident that Robert Frost coupled poetry and power. For he saw poetry as the means of saving power from itself.
When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man’s concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses.
For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstones of our judgment. The artist, however faithful to his personal vision of reality, becomes the last champion of the individual mind and sensibility against an intrusive society and an officious state.
The great artist is thus a solitary figure. He has, as Frost said, “a lover’s quarrel with the world.” In pursuing his perceptions of reality, he must often sail against the currents of his time. This is not a popular role.
If Robert Frost was much honored during his lifetime, it was because a good many preferred to ignore his darker truths. . .
It may be different elsewhere. But democratic society– in it– the highest duty of the writer, the composer, the artist is to remain true to himself and to let the chips fall where they may.
In serving his vision of the truth, the artist best serves his nation. And the nation which disdains the mission of art invites the fate of Robert Frost’s hired man– “the fate of having nothing to look backward to with pride and nothing to look forward to with hope.”
I look forward to a great future for America– a future in which our country will match its military strength with our moral restraint, its wealth with our wisdom, its power with our purpose.
I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty, which will protect the beauty of our national environment, which will preserve the great old American houses and squares and parks of our national past and which will build handsome and balanced cities for our future.
I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft.
I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens.
And I look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.
And I look forward to a world which will be safe not only for democracy and diversity but also for personal distinction.
Robert Frost was often skeptical about projects for human improvement. Yet I do not think he would disdain this hope.
As he wrote during the uncertain days of the Second War:
Take human nature altogether since time began …
And it must be a little more in favor of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least …
Our hold on the planet wouldn’t have so increased.
Because of Mr. Frost’s life and work, because of the life and work of this college, our hold on this planet has increased.