JFK’s Defense of the Poetic Principle: The Artist as the Unacknowledged Legislator of Society

Many know of John F. Kennedy as a great patriot and world citizen. Too many however are unaware of Kennedy’s profound understanding of the purpose of poetry in the moral education of society.

Describing his understanding of the mind of Leonardo Davinci during a worldwide tour of the Mona Lisa, the young president said:

“Today, we recognize increasingly the essentially of artistic achievement. This is part, I think, of a nationwide movement toward excellence–a movement which had its start in the admiration of expertness and skill in our technical society, but which now demands quality in all realms of human achievement. It is part, too, of a feeling that art is the great unifying and humanizing experience. We know that science, for example, is indispensable–but we also know that science, if divorced from a knowledge of man and of man’s ways, can stunt a civilization. And so the educated man–and very often the man who has had the best scientific education–reaches out for the experience which the arts alone provide. He wants to explore the side of life which expresses the emotions and embodies values and ideals of beauty.”

Embodying the ideals of Percy Bysshe Shelley who wrote 150 years earlier that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of society”, Kennedy’s drive to create a national cultural center of the arts in Washington was always interwoven with his long term planning economic projects which aimed not only to establish win-win cooperation internationally, but also uplift the lives of citizens both in the present as well as those yet unborn. This dual passion was united by his powerful insight into a future age of creative reason which he knew could only blossom once humankind came to finally discover and act upon our true nature.

In his convocation speech of October 26, 1963- less than one month before he was assassinated, Kennedy brilliantly outlined his understanding of the higher moral and practical purpose of freedom and the arts in honor of the recent passing of his friend, and America’s poet laureate Robert Frost (a man whom the Russians had recently called “the Pushkin of America”).

In honor of JFK’s immortal life, the Rising Tide Foundation presents the entire speech below. The audio recording can also be listened to here.

President John F. Kennedy: Remarks at Amherst College, October 26, 1963

“This day devoted to the memory of Robert Frost offers an opportunity for reflection which is prized by politicians as well as by others, and even by poets, for Robert Frost was one of the granite figures of our time in America. He was supremely two things: an artist and an American. A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.

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. In honoring Robert Frost, we therefore can pay honor to the deepest sources of our national strength. That strength takes many forms, and the most obvious forms are not always the most significant. The men who create 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.

Our national strength matters, but the spirit which informs and controls our 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 well 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 is 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 towards 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 truth which must serve as the touchstone 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. Yet in retrospect, we see how the artist’s fidelity has strengthened the fiber of our national life.

If sometimes our great artists have been the most critical of our society, it is because their sensitivity and their concern for justice, which must motivate any true artist, makes him aware that our Nation fails short of its highest potential. I see little of more importance to the future of our country and our civilization than full recognition of the place of the artist.

If art is to nourish the roots of our culture, society must set the artist free to follow his vision wherever it takes him. We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. And as Mr. MacLeish once remarked of poets, there is nothing worse for our trade than to be in style. In free society art is not a weapon and it does not belong to the sphere of polemics and ideology. Artists are not engineers of the soul. 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 natural 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.

*The Feature image presents a composite of Norman Rockwell’s 1962 portrait of Kennedy and Thomas Cole’s “The Dream of the Architect” (1840)

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