Created by Peter Armenti, Digital Reference Specialist
Abraham Lincoln's fondness for poetry influenced the nature of his thought and the character of his writing. From an early age, the future president read, memorized, and recited poetry. As an adult, he wrote several poems based on his childhood memories and developed a prose style that often bordered on the poetic. While president, he received many celebratory poems from the public which he read with pleasure and saved; he has since been the subject of hundreds of published poems. This Web Guide provides an overview of Abraham Lincoln as a reader, writer, recipient, and subject of poetry.
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Lincoln as Poetry Reader
Lincoln as Poetry Writer
Poems Sent to Lincoln
Poems about Lincoln
Lincoln as Poetry Reader
Lincoln became interested in poetry around the age of twelve, and remained an avid reader of poetry throughout his life. His earliest exposure to poetry likely came through Thomas Dilworth's literacy textbook A New Guide to the English Tongue, which included several short poems. When his widowed father Thomas married Sarah Bush Johnston in 1819, she brought to the household a small library that included William Scott's Lessons in Elocution, a gathering of poetry and prose for youth. It was from Scott's anthology, which Lincoln began reading seriously around 1825, that he first came into contact with many poems and poets that remained lifelong favorites, including Shakespeare, who ranked supreme in Lincoln's literary pantheon. In an 1863 letter to comedic actor James Hackett, who had recently published the book Notes and Comments upon Certain Plays and Actors of Shakespeare, with Criticisms and Correspondence, Lincoln outlined his familiarity with Shakespeare's works:
Some of Shakespeare's plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing "Oh my offense is rank" surpasses that commencing, "To be or not to be."
Other poets whose work Lincoln enjoyed included Lord Byron, Thomas Gray, Thomas Hood, Oliver Wendell Holmes, John Greenleaf Whittier, Fitz-Greene Halleck, and, second only to Shakespeare, Robert Burns. [2, 3, 4] Lincoln's love of Burns's poetry was so widely known during his presidency that he received many invitations to annual celebrations of the Scotsman's birthday. When Alexander Williamson, the secretary of the Washington Burns club, wrote Lincoln asking him to recognize the "the genius of Scotland's bard," Lincoln replied: "I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcendent genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything worth saying.”
Not only did Lincoln read poetry, but he memorized large swaths which he frequently recited to friends and inserted into conversation. His favorite poem, which he recited so often that people suspected Lincoln was the author, was William Knox's "Mortality," or, "Oh, Why should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud?" So great was Lincoln's affection for the poem that he once wrote, "I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is."
Other favorite poems Lincoln committed to memory were Oliver Wendell Holmes’ "The Last Leaf" and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven." Both are examples of the gloomy, melancholic poetry of which Lincoln was so fond and at which he would try his own hand.
Lincoln as Poetry Writer
In addition to his poetic prose, exemplified by the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln was the author of several capable poems. The Library of Congress' Presidents as Poets Web site includes the text of these poems and historical information about their composition.
Poems Sent to Lincoln
Lincoln received a large volume of mail from the public throughout his political career. While a presidential candidate, he received an average of 50 letters per day. After his election in November 1860, 250 to 500 pieces of mail reached his office daily. In addition to official correspondence, Lincoln's mailbag overflowed with letters by men and women from all levels of society and on nearly every conceivable subject. Individuals sought political appointments and favors; offered opinions on the war and matters of state; described (often harebrained) inventions; threatened the president's life; and extolled or criticized his actions. Many letters praising Lincoln were accompanied by poems, some original and other clipped from newspapers—gifts for the president's approval, delight, and diversion.
Lincoln had time to read only a small percentage of the letters addressed to him and could respond to even fewer. One of his staff secretaries recalled that Lincoln kept a correspondence file (labeled "Crazy and Poetry" to denote the interesting mix of mail kept inside) in one of his desk's many pigeonholes filled with poems from the public. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress contain numerous poems sent to Lincoln during his presidency. The following letters provide a small sampling of poems that Lincoln received and retained while in office.
Anna Bache, 1861 (Poem: “Lincoln at Springfield, 1861”)
Set at Springfield in 1861, soon before Lincoln's departure to Washington to assume the presidency, this poem prays that Lincoln may have the strength and judgment to guide a nation on the verge of civil war.
Anonymous. “Polly Peach Blossom" to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, April 04, 1864
Many people who wrote to Lincoln asked for small favors or requests. The most common request was for Lincoln's autograph. "Polly Peach Blossom," the anonymous author of this letter, sends along her poem "The Maul" and asks in return for Lincoln's autograph "upon the enclosed piece of silk, which is to be placed in my wedding quilt."
Elizabeth O. Smith to Abraham Lincoln, Monday, December 09, 1861
Elizabeth Smith sends Lincoln an "Ode written by my Son, Mr Appleton Oaksmith, & sung at the great Union meeting in the City of New York."
Frank Wells to Abraham Lincoln, Thursday, June 16, 1864
This poem, praising the "merciful" and "just" Lincoln, who occupies the "proudest of all earth's thrones," must have impressed Lincoln: he endorsed the poem in his own hand as "pretty fair poetry."
Hannibal Cox, Wednesday, March 30, 1864 (Poem from soldier in 14th U. S. Colored Troops)
Although Lincoln received thousands of letters each week from a cross-section of white society, he was sent few letters from African Americans. In this rare example, soldier and former slave Hannibal Cox sends Lincoln a poetic tribute to the "flag of the union."
John C. Baxter to Abraham Lincoln, Friday, November 25, 1864
John Baxter sends a copy of his wife's poem, "The Soldier's Thanksgiving," to Lincoln, noting that "the enclosed lines have been sent by large quantities, in the boxes of Turkeys, to our brave boys at the Front."
Oliver Gibbs to Abraham Lincoln, Wednesday, May 04, 1864
Gibbs' poem "The Presidential Cow" was, as one would expect and hope from the title, written for "private amusement" only.
Additional poems sent to Lincoln can be read through the Library's Abraham Lincoln Papers.
Poetry written about Lincoln
Beginning in 1865, a number of anthologies compiled poems celebrating Lincoln's life and achievements. A number of these anthologies are now in the public domain and available online. These include:
Krans, Horatio Sheafe, ed. The Lincoln Tribute Book; Appreciations by Statesmen, Men of Letters, and Poets at Home and Abroad, together with a Lincoln Centenary Medal from the Second Design Made for the Occasion by Roine. New York, London: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1909. [catalog record]
Oldroyd, Osborn H., ed. The Poets' Lincoln; Tributes in Verse to the Martyred President. Washington, D.C.: The Editor (Osborn H Oldroyd), 1915. [catalog record]
Poetical Tributes to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1865.
Williams, A Dallas, comp. The Praise of Lincoln: An Anthology. Indianapolis: The
Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1911. [catalog record]
Wright-Davis, Mary, comp. The Book of Lincoln. New York: George H. Doran, 1919.
Most poems about Lincoln anthologized in the fifty years after his assassination are highly stylized and sentimental, though a number were quite popular during their time and remain well known today. The following list links to several of these better known poems, as well additional poems about Lincoln by notable American poets.
Brooks, Gwendolyn. "In the Time of Detachment, in the Time of Cold"
Bryant, William Cullen. "The Death of Lincoln"
Bynner, Witter. "A Farmer Remembers Lincoln"
Dunbar, Paul Laurence. "Lincoln"
Fletcher, John Gould. "Lincoln"
Howe, Julia Ward. "Crown His Blood-Stained Pillow"
Hughes, Langston. "Lincoln Monument: Washington"
Kunitz, Stanley. "The Lincoln Relics"
Lindsay, Vachel. "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"
Lowell, James Russell, "Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration. July 21, 1865"
MacLeish, Archibald. "At the Lincoln Memorial"
Markham, Edwin. "Lincoln, the Man of the People"
Melville, Herman. "The Martyr"
Robinson, Edwin Arlington. "The Master"
Sandburg, Carl. "The Long Shadow of Lincoln"; "Mr Lincoln and His Gloves"; "Lincoln the Dreamer"
Whitman, Walt. "O Captain! My Captain!"; "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"; "Hush'd be the Camps To-Day"; "This Dust was Once the Man"
Whittier, John G. "The Emancipation Group"
Zarin, Cynthia. "Of Lincoln"
For examinations of Lincoln's poetry and his interest in poetry, see:
Guernsey, Bruce. "The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln." Virginia Quarterly Review: A National Journal of Literature and Discussion 78, no. 2 (Spring 2002): 295-303.
Kaplan, Fred. Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. [catalog record]
Harkness, David J., and R. Gerald McMurtry. Lincoln's Favorite Poets. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1959. [catalog record]
The Lincoln Institute. "Abraham Lincoln and Literature." Abraham Lincoln's Classroom. http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/Library/newsletter.asp?ID=21&CRLI=101.
Shenk, Joshua Wolf. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2005. [catalog record]
Other examinations of Lincoln's literary style held by the Library of Congress are listed in the Library's online catalog under the following subject heading:
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Literary art.
To find additional poems and anthologies of poems about Abraham Lincoln, search the Library's online catalog under the following subject headings:
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Poetry.
Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865--Juvenile poetry.
Library databases such as LitFinder and The Columbia Granger's World of Poetry also can be used to identify poems about Lincoln.
1. See Fred Kaplan, Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).
2. For a bibliography of writings scholars assert Lincoln read, along with evaluations of the likehood Lincoln read them, see Robert Bray's "What Abraham Lincoln Read—An Evaluative and Annotated List," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 28, no. 2 (Summer 2007): 28-81. Bray notes that David J. Harkness and Gerald McMurtry's Lincoln's Favorite Poets (1959), should not be regarded as authoritative due to lack of source citation.
3. For an exploration of Burns' influence on Lincoln, and the parallels between the two men, see Ferenc Morton Szasz's Abraham Lincoln and Robert Burns: Connected Lives and Legends (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2008).
4. Many people assume Lincoln must have been familiar with Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, but there is no definitive documenation that Lincoln read Whitman's work. The only attestation of Lincoln reading Leaves of Grass comes from Henry Rankin, a student in Lincoln and Herndon’s law office. In his memoir, Personal Recollections of Abraham Lincoln (1916), Rankin remembers how Lincoln read aloud from Herndon’s copy of Leaves of Grass. Although Rankin's claims lack independent corroboration, many modern Whitman scholars, including Daniel Mark Epstein (Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington), accept Rankin's story as true.
5. Statistics on the volume of mail addressed to President Lincoln come from Harold Holzer's Dear Mr. Lincoln: Letters to the President (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006) and The Lincoln Mailbag: America Writes to the President, 1861-1865 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1998). These books provide wide-ranging examples of other letters sent to Lincoln, as well as poems not available in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress.