In 1960, when I was in my second year at the University of Virginia, poet Robert Frost came to the Grounds for the dedication of the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature that had assembled the most complete collection of Frost’s works ever brought together. There was an elegant dinner at Carr’s Hill, the U.Va. president’s mansion, followed by what was expected to be a brief appearance by Frost at Cabell Hall auditorium.
I must have had some ushering responsibilities that night, because I arrived early and secured prime seats for myself and my roommate Ted Wolfe, who carried a volume of Frost’s collected works that he desperately wanted autographed. The auditorium filled to capacity, and then the student overflow was allowed to occupy the wings of the stage where, grateful for their surprise positions, they sat shoulder to shoulder on the hardwood floor. My duties done, I took my seat next to Ted and waited for America’s most awarded poet to arrive.
In 1960, Robert Frost was 86 years old and considered infirm. A few months following his appearance at U.Va., in January 1961, Frost would recite his poem “The Gift Outright” at the John Kennedy presidential inauguration. He would be the first poet so honored, but his appearance almost turned into a disaster. Supported to the podium, Frost attempted to read the poem from a folded sheet of paper that he took from his inside coat pocket, but the cold winter wind and the glare of the sun made the reading impossible. Frost struggled as a nation watched in sympathetic horror. Then he put away the paper and recited the entire poem from memory. The image of Frost’s recovery and triumph is iconic in inauguration history and, for me, more memorable than Kennedy’s most quoted end note of that speech: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”
The reason I so warmly embrace Frost’s inauguration triumph over physical vulnerability and potential humiliation is because I had witnessed his amazing strength that night in Cabell Hall. I forget who introduced Frost. In memory, I see him enter the stage from the wings on the arm of a black man dressed in what appeared to be a chauffeur’s uniform. The students seated on the floor slid on their behinds to make way. At the podium, Frost had three worn books of his collected poetry. I had been told by one of the stage managers that Frost would speak for no more than fifteen minutes. And how could he be expected to do more after such a long ceremonial day? Looking at the old white-haired man bent with age, I guess most of us in the audience expected the reading of a few poems and nothing more. Certainly there would be no question and answer period that we had come to expect from our on-Grounds writer-in-residence William Faulkner.
Frost removed a folded sheet of paper from his inside suit coat pocket, considered its content, and then returned it to the pocket. He had not said a word, and the audience paused in suspended animation for what he might do next. Then in a very gentle, conversational voice, Frost recounted how he had leaned back during the limousine ride to the auditorium, and through the curved rear window, observed the evening star. He said that seeing it reminded him of how important the evening star had been in his poetry, so he decided to put away his prepared remarks and read a few of the poems inspired by that star.
He then began to search through the three books for the poems that came to mind, and a remarkable transformation began to occur. As he read, his posture became more erect, his voice stronger. And although he began reading a poem from an open book, by the second or third line, his eyes came up, and he was reciting from memory. Oh, my God, the poetry came alive in an experience of profound revelation. The familiar ones like “Mending Wall,” “The Road Not Taken,” and “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” were never so wonderfully satisfying, and all the others so attuned to our youthful souls. Frost astounded us with his strength as a lifetime of creative energy welled up in him. And then, with the last poem recited and more than an hour passed, his gigantic aura receded, and his body slumped back into its previous form of old age. In awe, even as we stood and applauded, we saw him helped across the stage as one might support an invalid.
Ted grabbed my arm and begged me to take him backstage where Frost might autograph the book he had brought. When we got near to Frost, he was still being supported by the same man in the uniform as they made their way toward the exit. Considering his vulnerability, I was very reluctant to bother Frost for an autograph, but Ted insisted. Imagine my audacity as I introduced Ted to Frost and asked him to sign Ted’s book. Frost only mumbled, and with a trembling hand and stub-nosed pencil, he scrawled something almost illegible onto the title page of the book. Seeing Frost backstage, it was impossible to believe that this was the same man who had held an audience spellbound for over an hour. We could only rationalize that what we had witnessed was a divine expression of the creative life force. Then, later at Kennedy’s inauguration, we saw the power again, and perhaps we wept at the natural wonder of a creative man like Robert Frost.