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The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

ISSUE:  Spring 2002

Not far from where I live in east central Illinois, the father of Abraham Lincoln lies buried. Though I’ve lived out here in this open land for more than two decades, I had not visited Thomas Lincoln’s grave until last year, after my father died. He is buried in the east where I’m from, and I guess I needed a nearby place to mourn. Or maybe I just missed my father that fall day I stopped by tiny Shiloh Cemetery to stand where Abraham Lincoln once stood. That great man knew words and how to say them, and I began to imagine his voice as he lowered his head and whispered.

What he said, and especially how he said it, became an obsession of mine after that visit. The president-elect had come there the last time on Jan.31, 1861. He was off to Washington the next day to be inaugurated. I felt like an eavesdropper, my ear at the wall of time as I tried to hear this incredible moment of son speaking to father about what lay before him. Did he ask for advice? Did he say thank you? Did the past come back with all its difficulties, and did they argue? I wanted to know because I, too, was now a fatherless son.

I attempted to deal with this connection I felt by writing a poem, but struggled with point of view. Finally I realized that I had to write this in Lincoln’s voice, not my own or my father’s or Thomas Lincoln’s or some third-person’s—a dramatic monologue, that is, set on that very day in January, the air raw in this openness, and windy as only the prairie can be. The monologue’s time and place were the easy part, but what did Lincoln sound like? I had to know and turned to his letters and speeches to find out.

I began thumbing through the first of the Library of America’s two-volume set of Lincoln’s work, the 1832—1858 writings edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher. Among a group of 1846 political letters was a strikingly familiar sight: words in a vertical shape that didn’t go all the way to the right-hand margin—words that looked a lot like poetry. Abraham Lincoln wrote poetry!? Amazing! I knew he split rails and learned to read in the dark, but I’d never heard about the poems. Besides, an ambitious young lawyer-politician is hardly someone we think of as penning verse. What might have been so important for him to take the time to do so, I wondered? Could it be that something “hurt” him into poetry, as has been said of poets before, but not of future presidents?

“My Childhood-Home I See Again,” the poem I found there, was actually written in two separate parts that were included in letters to Andrew Johnston, a former colleague of Lincoln’s in the Illinois House and a budding poet himself. In another letter, Lincoln sent along a third poem called “The Bear Hunt,” and humbly refers to all of his poetry as “doggerel.” “I am not at all displeased with your proposal to publish the poetry,” Lincoln says to Johnston, however. He does want his name “suppressed,” so he says, for “I have not sufficient hope of the verses attracting any favorable notice to tempt me to risk being ridiculed for having written them.” The two halves of “Childhood-Home” did finally appear in the Quincy, Illinois Whig and with Lincoln’s name, so perhaps this legendary man was just like any other beginning poet: at once shy, nervous, and proud about what he had written.

Honest Abe was also being honest—the work is very stylized and sentimental—and the distinctive voice I was searching for was not in these little-known poems, alas. It is, of course, in the prose, but I’m convinced that Lincoln’s practice with lines—and as I later learned, his constant reading and reciting of poetry—helped make him the speech writer he was. Of equal importance, the content of these poems hints at a vision in the making, revealing this dark-browed man’s nostalgic personality as he ranges from troubling thoughts of home to a rollicking ride through the country, hunting bears.

Writing to Johnston on April 18, 1846, Lincoln acknowledges a parody of “The Raven” that his friend had sent along but admits that he has never read Poe’s original. He also discusses another poem that he’d read some years before “in a straggling form in a newspaper,” one he would “give all I am worth . . .to be able to write”—a poem that scholars are sure was William Knox’s “Mortality,” a very somber piece. He concludes this letter with some stanzas of his own that he “was led to write under the following circumstances.” To summarize, Lincoln had gone back to Indiana helping to campaign in 1844 and while there, had visited the site “where [his] mother and only sister were buried.” The result of that visit is the first part of what became “My Childhood-Home.”

Written in the meter of Protestant hymns (“common meter”) and full of all kinds of graveyard-school poeticisms, the poem is nonetheless oddly touching, perhaps because we know of Lincoln’s own sorrows and of his later heroic struggle to keep the national “home” together, never having had a permanent one of his own. Here are a few stanzas:

As dusky mountains please the eye
 When twilight chases day;
As bugle-notes that, passing by,
 In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
 We, lingering, list its roar—
So memory will hallow all
 We’ve known, but know no more.

   *   *   

The friends I left that parting day,
 How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
 And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell
 How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
 And every spot a grave.

One of those friends he left, one of those “loved survivors,” is the subject of the next section which he sent Johnston half a year later. Based on the same visit to Indiana, these lines deal with “an insane man” from his hometown whom Lincoln identifies as Matthew Gentry. Matthew once went to school with Abe, but at 19 became “unaccountably” mad. The poet Lincoln found him in this same “wretched condition” in 1844, and in a “poetizing mood,” wrote 13 quatrains about the man’s plight. In form and content these are a focused extension of the previous stanzas and underwent only minor changes when Lincoln joined them all together. Again, some examples:

But here’s an object more of dread
 Than ought the grave contains—
A human form with reason fled,
 While wretched life remains.

Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright,
 A fortune-favored child—
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
 A haggard mad-man wild.

   *   *   

How then you strove and shrieked aloud,
 Your bones and sinews bared;
And fiendish on the gazing crowd,
 With burning eye-balls glared—

And begged, and swore, and wept and prayed
 With maniac laugh joined—
How fearful were those signs displayed
 By pangs that killed thy mind!

“The Bear Hunt,” sent to Johnston in February, 1847, is a major change of pace and would have confirmed what many in Washington thought of this lanky Mid-Westerner, that he was a hick at heart. Full of energy and 19th-century country fun, the poem reveals another side of Lincoln, who apparently was able to have a hearty laugh at what “pompous, two-legged dogs there be,” as well as feel for the plight of his fellow man as he does for Matthew Gentry. Despite its continual end-stopped lines, “The Bear Hunt” races along on monosyllabic paws and hooves in pursuit of both its burly quarry and Lincoln’s concluding moral about man’s false pride. These stanzas are part of the “chace”:

On press his foes, and reach the ground,
 Where’s left his half munched meal;
The dogs, in circles, scent around,
 And find his fresh made trail.

With instant cry, away they dash,
 And men as fast pursue;
O’er logs they leap, through water splash,
 And shout the brisk halloo.

   *   *   

And round, and round the chace now goes,
 The world’s alive with fun;
Nick Carter’s horse, his rider throws,  And more, Hill drops his gun.

Now sorely pressed, bear glances back,
 And lolls his tired tongue;
When as, to force him from his track,
 An ambush on him sprung.

Given the earthiness of Lincoln’s subject here, I was not surprised when I learned later that his two favorite poets were Shakespeare and Burns, lads of the fields themselves. Lincoln is reported to have walked the hallways of the White House late at night reciting lines from MacBeth, the tragedy he liked most. Political themes appealed to him for obvious reasons, but he also loved the figure of Falstaff. He had his critical opinions, too. Writing to the actor James H. Hackett in 1863, he said, “Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offence is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be, or not to be.”“

So Lincoln was more like Claudius than Hamlet when visiting his father’s grave, I thought after reading this. “A man to double business bound,” unable to pray sincerely like that ambitious brother caught between love and hate. “Bow, stubborn knees,” Lincoln may well have said that January morning, trying to find the right words to say goodbye to his father with whom he had had a difficult relationship. He had to find those right words, too, on Nov. 19, 1863, at another, more famous grave site.

And find them he did, all 272 of them in the legendary address which, as Gary Wills makes so clear in Lincoln at Gettysburg, is a poem in prose. Part inspiration, part perspiration, the writing of the speech is as surrounded by mystery as Coleridge’s composition of “Kubla Khan.” Myth has it that Lincoln wrote it on the train, hastily on an envelope, his muse the rhythm of the rails. More likely, he worked on it for days, carefully selecting, carefully omitting, for the speech gets a good deal of its richness from what’s left out.

For example, “The omission of most coupling words,” as Wills states, of what rhetoricians call “asyndeton.” “We are engaged/ . . . We are met/ . . . We have come/ . . .”—an absence of “and’s” and “but’s,” that is, and no transitional adverbs to remind us that we are reading sentences. Instead, the sentences read like lines, which is why I separated them as if I were quoting a poem. “We can not dedicate/. . .we can not consecrate/ . . .we can not hallow.”

This “telegraphic eloquence,” Wills’ oxymoron for Lincoln’s verse-like precision at Gettysburg, was certainly part of the contemporary technology, one that Lincoln welcomed for practical purposes to keep up with his generals but one that he also made into an art form, epigrammatic, lapidary. He apparently grew very impatient with imprecise language from the War Department which fumbled with messages, and thus the truth, in a way that we have grown used to today. In contrast, here are three of Lincoln’s telegrams that Wills gives us that reveal Lincoln’s ear for brevity, Shakespeare’s “soul of wit”:

“Have none of it. Stand firm.”

“On that point hold firm, as with a chain of steel.”

“Watch it every day, and hour, and force it.”

Hard-hitting monosyllables, these crafted miniatures mostly are, but if we listen closely, we can sometimes hear a rise and fall in those one-syllable words: an iambic rhythm, that is, which persuades the recipient of the message more gently. In the first example, Lincoln starts out with a brisk, two-step stride to the door and ends with two hard knocks. The second message is the opposite in form: several stressed syllables followed by a simile in three alternating accented syllables—the same iambic trimeter found in the even lines of a common meter stanza. As in a line of poetry, the comma placement in the third little gem helps create a voice by isolating a moment of time that is more exact than “day” and makes the recipient’s two-fisted duty even more urgent.

Lincoln clearly had a sense of words as sounds. He loved theater, he loved mimicry, he loved poetry. From all reports he had a high-pitched tenor voice, not the brawny baritone we might expect and which has been portrayed. More reed in the prairie wind than rumbling roll of the sea. Wills believes that Lincoln was well heard at Gettysburg because of the tone of his voice, but how exactly he emphasized the syllables is anyone’s guess. Here’s mine.

Lincoln starts with a rhyme, and it would be hard not to put equal emphasis on both “Four” and “score.” He begins with a spondee, that is, with two hard stresses like that knock at the door—or more appropriately here, the bang of a drum. The next line is simple iambic: “and seven years ago,” followed by the strongly alliterative, “our fathers brought forth upon this continent.” But here we have a slight discrepancy between the spoken text and the official written one. In the former, Lincoln included the syllable, “up-” (to “-on”) that he omits in print, this slack syllable smoothing the rhythm into iambic and perhaps adding, ever-so-slightly, to the eloquence of hearing. The additionally alliterative, “a new nation,” is followed again by iambics that might be broken into lines this way: “conceived in Liberty, /and dedicated to/the proposition that.” Here, the opening spondee returns with “all men,” and the first paragraph/stanza concludes with strong assonance, “are created equal.”

This little exercise is not meant to suggest that Lincoln continually measured his way through words but that by the time he went to Gettysburg, language had a more natural motion for him, not the studied and stilted formality of his poems more than a decade before. As Wills says, “Lincoln, like most writers of great prose, began by writing bad poetry.” An apprenticeship in form and in selecting the right word to fit, which was a lifelong struggle for the studied Lincoln, comes in part from these poetic attempts. This kind of discipline, together with his habit of reciting poetry— of putting voice to words, that is—help make his prose so memorable. Like an Elizabethan actor, he learned to hear in lines, and came to write that way.

What he found the need to write about in a poem like “My Childhood-Home” is also the very stuff of his greatest eloquence in the speeches and letters. What “hurt” him into this poem was visiting the graves of his mother and sister; that is, his sorrow at the early separation from their warmth and companionship. Returning after 15 years to what he knew of home, as he wrote to Johnston, “aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry.”

The heartbeat is everywhere in Lincoln’s best prose as he attempts to resolve loss with the comforting pulse of the iambic rhythm. For example, in his famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, who had lost five of her sons in battle, the president returns again and again to this consoling rise and fall: “I feel how weak and fruitless must/ be any word of mine. . . . I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage/. . .the cherished memory of the loved and lost/. . .the solemn pride that must be yours.” (Line breaks mine.)

Motherless, he sought the bosom of his stepmother, Sarah Bush Lincoln, and became almost mother-like himself in his tender concern for someone like Matthew Gentry, who was neglected by both fate and family. The cradle rocks endlessly and subtly at those most emotional and memorable moments of Lincoln’s prose. Just listen to his voice in these concluding words-as-lines from the Second Inaugural Address: “to care for him who shall have borne the battle, / and for his widow, and his orphan—/to do all which may achieve and cherish/ a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, / and with all nations.” The sophisticated rhymes (“borne,” “orphan,” “nations”) and reassuring rhythms (“lines” one and four, near perfect blank verse) are here in service of the richest of themes.

So are they, too, at the end of the Gettysburg Address where Lincoln brings down an imagined curtain with a powerful and symbolic rhyme the way Shakespeare closes a scene. Here’s how, shaped as poetry, the clauses of his famous last sentence might look and sound:

”. . . that the nation shall,
under God, have a new birth
of freedom, and that this government
of the people, by the people, for the people,
shall not perish from the earth.”

No doubt there was long applause after he finished, but I’ll bet there was also that moment of silence that follows the hearing of a deeply felt poem. We hold our breath and maybe even bow our heads, look down at the earth. Did he call him Thomas or Father, this man whose family name he’d carried from birth? With all those stones at Gettysburg, for “those who struggled here”—how could he not think of that one at Shiloh, as I see my own father’s now? His hat off, the wind harsh out of the west, he’d come with “a great task” before him. He came to remember and give thanks, reasons enough for any poem.


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