Robert Frost Writes About the Wright Brothers

by Dr. Richard Stimson

in Honoring the Wright Brothers

Many people are unaware that Robert Frost wrote a poem about the Wright Brothers and Kitty Hawk. The poem is one of a collection of poems in his book, In The Clearing. It was his last book published before his death in 1963.

The poem is titled, “Kitty Hawk.” The four-time winner of the Pulitzer didn’t skimp on words. The poem consists of 473 lines. I must admit that I had to read it a number of times before I began to understand his meaning. Frost seems to be saying less than he really does. He requires you to read thoughtfully and think between sentences to become aware of his message.

The poem is too long to present in total here. Instead, I will provide selected passages. I have italicized some words for emphasis.

Frost first went to Kitty Hawk in 1894 as a young man of 19 years. He returned in 1953 for the 50th anniversary of the first powered flight.

Kitty Hawk, O Kitty,
There was once a song,
Who knows but a great
Emblematic ditty,
I might well have sung
When I came here young
Out and down along
Past Elizabeth City
Sixty years ago.

What did men mean by
THE original?
Why was it so very,
Very necessary
To be first of all?
How about the lie
That he wasn’t first?
I was glad he laughed.
There was such a lie
Money and maneuver
Fostered over long
Until Herbert Hoover
Raised this tower shaft
To undo the wrong.
Of all crimes the worst
Is to steal the glory
From the great and brave,
Even more accused
Than to rob the grave.

When the chance went by
For my Muse to fly
From this Runway Beach
As a figure of speech
In a flight of words,
Little I imagined
Men would treat this sky
Some day to a pageant
Like a thousand birds.
Neither you nor I
Ever thought to fly.
Oh, but fly we did,
Literally fly……

Though our kiting ships
Prove but flying chips
From the science shop
And when motors stop
They may have to drop
Short of anywhere,
Though our leap in air
Prove as vain a hop
As the hop from grass
Of a grasshopper,
Don’t discount our powers;
We have made a pass
At the infinite,
Made it, as it were,
Rationally ours,
To the remote
Swirl of neon-lit
Particle afloat.

Pilot, though at best your
Flight is but a gesture,
And your rise and swoop,
But a loop the loop,
Lands on someone hard
In his own backyard
From no higher heaven
Than a bolt of levin,
I don’t say retard.
Keep on elevating.
But while meditating
What we can’t or can
Let’s keep starring man
In the royal role.

God of the machine,
Peregrine machine,
Some still think is Satan,
Unto you the thanks
For this token flight,
Thanks to you and thanks
To the brothers Wright
Once considered cranks
Like Darius Green
In their home town, Dayton.

“Frost is a philosopher, but his ideas are behind his poems, not in them-buried well, for us to guess at if we please.” (Mark Van Doren, The Atlantic Monthly, June 1951)

Previous post:

Next post: