With his characteristic courage to speak the truth that inspired the nation, President Kennedy opens his speech reminding the students that they are privileged by virtue of the education they are receiving. Such privilege carries with it responsibility – a responsibility to serve the public interest, and to contribute not only their talents to the “Great Republic,” but as well, their sympathy, their understanding, and their compassion. Pledging his confidence in the students, Kennedy quotes from “A Road Not Taken,” and counsels them that a decision to serve the nation will make “all the difference.”
The President’s tribute to Frost is also an ode to the indispensable role the arts and artists play in ensuring the strength of our democracy.
Weaving the Poet’s words throughout his speech, Kennedy speaks of how Frost coupled poetry and power and of Frost’s belief that when power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. Then he offers his own belief that “when power corrupts, poetry cleanses. For art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment.”
Acknowledging the solitude that can come with the artist’s search for truth and concern for justice, Kennedy uses Frost’s words to argue that a nation that disdains the mission of art has “nothing to look backward to with pride, and nothing to look forward to with hope.”
The President ends his tribute with his aspirations for America to match its military strength with its moral restraint and its wealth with its wisdom – for an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well. To achieve this vision, Kennedy realizes he has “miles to go” before he sleeps, a phrase from Frost that he often used on the campaign trail.
At Kennedy’s inauguration, Robert Frost honored the President with a poem written for the occasion. He predicted the new administration would usher in a golden age of poetry and power, “of which this noonday’s the beginning hour.” At Amherst, Kennedy honors Frost as one whose contribution was not to our size but to our spirit, not to our self-esteem but to our self-comprehension. “Our national strength matters,” he says, “but the spirit which informs and controls our strength matters just as much. This was the special significance of Robert Frost.”
The President’s speech at Amherst has been called the “most majestic” of his career. Kennedy exhibited both his sensitivity to the human spirit and his civic values as he spoke that day — when he spoke about the importance of the arts and artists in our democracy; and about the importance of those who question power, “especially when that questioning is disinterested.” He said we need the service of every man and woman, “to make it possible for Americans of all different races and creeds to live together in harmony, to make it possible for a world to exist in diversity and freedom. All this requires the best of all of us.”
– Neil Bicknell, 2022