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Chief Justice Melville W. Fuller administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison on the east portico of the U.S. Capitol, March 4, 1889

[Detail] Administering the oath of office to Benjamin Harrison, 1889.

Poetry

Poetry is sometimes featured prominently in inaugural ceremonies. The poem, "Ode in Honor of the Inauguration of Buchanan and Breckenridge" from 1857 is based on the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner" and celebrates the new president:

Encircled with glory our Jackson retir'd,
Who led us in safety through war's dread commotion.
While the spirit that raised him another inspir'd,
To watch o'er our rights with equal devotion. Buchanan will preside,
His Countrymen's pride,
The Patriot, the Statesman, the Farmer well tried,
And thus shall the fourth day of March ever yield,
A harvest of glory in Liberty's field.

An Inaugural Poem" was printed on a press in a wagon during Abraham Lincoln's second inaugural parade. This piece dramatizes the Civil War and celebrates the Union:

No scowling traitors in this hour
Will dare to thwart the people's power;
No forsworn plotters can implore
That Freedom's temple may run o'er
With the heart's blood of him who won
The post twice filled by Washington.

  • How do these poems describe the presidents?
  • What do the imagery, language, and rhyme scheme add to the meaning and effect of each poem?
  • How do the imagery and language differ between the poem for Buchanan, who was inaugurated during a time of peace and prosperity, and the poem for Lincoln, who was inaugurated in the midst of the Civil War?
  • Why would a poem be based on the melody of the "Star Spangled Banner"?

Almost a century later, Robert Frost was asked to read a poem at John Kennedy's inauguration. Frost composed “Dedication” for the ceremony, but the glare from the snow-covered ground prohibited the poet from being able to read his text. Instead, he recited “The Gift Outright” from memory.

  • How does “Dedication” compare to “The Gift Outright”? What are the similarities and differences?
  • Is it important that a work is written specifically for the inauguration?
  • What is the goal and purpose of such a poem?
  • What does the reciting of a poem add to an inaugural ceremony? What is the value of having a poet participate in the ceremony?
  • Does the meaning of having a poet read at an inauguration change when the poet is unable to read his intended poem? Why or why not?
  • Examine the style of one of these poems (meter, rhyme, etc.) and write an imitation for the most recent inauguration.

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