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Abraham Lincoln (President of the United States, 1861-1865)

Lincoln as Poet


Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front
.
Photographic print.
[Nov. 8, 1863]

Prints & Photographs Online Catalog.
Library of Congress.

Throughout his life, Abraham Lincoln was an avid reader of poetry. As a teenager, however, Lincoln also began to cultivate an interest in writing poetry. Lincoln's oldest surviving verses, written when he was between fifteen and seventeen years old, are brief squibs that appear in his arithmetic book.

Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When [1]

Poem from Lincoln's Sum Book

                               *****

Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good
but god knows When Time What an emty vaper
tis and days how swift they are swift as an Indian arr[ow]
fly on like a shooting star the presant moment Just [is here]
then slide away in h[as]te that we [can] never say they['re ours]
                                                           but [only say] th[ey]'re past

                              *****

Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read

During his teens and early twenties, Lincoln wrote a number of crude and satirical verses. The poem that Lincoln's neighbors best remembered from this period was the "Chronicles of Reuben," which his neighbor, Joseph C. Richardson, claimed was "remembered here in Indiana in scraps better than the Bible." The history behind the poem reveals that, when provoked, Lincoln could wield his pen as a blunt instrument of attack. In 1826, Lincoln's sister Sarah married Aaron Grigsby, whose family were neighbors of the Lincolns. When Sarah died in childbirth in 1828, Lincoln blamed Aaron and the Grigsbys for delaying to call a doctor. The incident created a rift between Lincoln and the Grigsbys. Lincoln's bitterness increased when he was not invited to the joint wedding celebration of Aaron's brothers Reuben and Charles, who married on the same day. In revenge, Lincoln appears to have arranged, through a friend, for Reuben and Charles to be brought to the wrong bedrooms, where each other's new wives awaited after the wedding party. Lincoln then wrote a description of the incident known as the "Chronicles of Reuben" as payback. Patterned after biblical scripture, the prose narrative was followed by a poem about Billy Grigsby, another of Aaron's brothers. The coarse poem ridicules the failed attempts of Billy to woo girls. The original text of the "The Chronicles of Reuben" does not survive, though several of Lincoln's neighbor's later recollected the poem for William Herndon.[2]

One of Lincoln's Springfield neighbors, James Matheny, recalled that sometime between 1837-39 Lincoln joined "a Kind of Poetical Society" to which he occasionally submitted poems. Although none of the poems survive, Matheny remembered one eye-raising stanza from a poem "on Seduction":

Whatever Spiteful fools may Say —
Each jealous, ranting yelper —
No woman ever played the whore
Unless She had a man to help her.

Lincoln wrote his most serious poetry in 1846. The limited information that exists about their composition comes from comes from Lincoln's correspondence with Andrew Johnston, a fellow lawyer and Whig politician from Quincy, Illinois. In a letter to Johnston on February 24, 1846, Lincoln wrote:

Feeling a little poetic this evening, I have concluded to redeem my promise this evening by sending you the piece you expressed the wish to have.[3] You find it enclosed. I wish I could think of something else to say; but I believe I can not. By the way, would you like to see a piece of poetry of my own making? I have a piece that is almost done, but I find a deal of trouble to finish it.[4]

The poem Lincoln alluded to is "My Childhood-Home I See Again." It was completed shortly after Lincoln's message to Johnston.

[View Transcript]

     Page One            Page Two          Page Three          Page Four
"My Childhood-Home I See Again" -- Page One  "My Childhood-Home I See Again" -- Page Two  "My Childhood-Home I See Again" -- Page Three  "My Childhood-Home I See Again" -- Page Four

When Lincoln later edited the poem, he divided it into two sections, or cantos. He sent the first canto to Johnston in an April 18, 1846 letter, noting that it was intended to be the first section of a larger poem he was working on. In the letter, Lincoln preceded the text of the canto by describing the circumstances that led him to write it:

In the fall of 1844, thinking I might aid some to carry the State of Indiana for Mr. Clay, I went into the neighborhood in that State in which I was raised, where my mother and sister were buried, and from which I had been absent about fifteen years. That part of the country is, within itself, as unpoetical as any spot of the earth; but still, seeing it and its objects and inhabitants aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry; though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question. When I got to writing, the change of subjects divided the think into four little divisions or cantos, the first only of which I send you now and may send the others hereafter.[5]

Lincoln sent the second canto to Johnston in his letter of September 6, 1846. Lincoln introduced the canto to Johnston in the following manner:

You remember when I wrote you from Tremont last spring, sending you a little canto of what I called poetry, I promised to bore you with another some time. I now fulfil the promise. The subject of the present one is an insane man. His name is Matthew Gentry. He is three years older than I, and when we were boys we went to school together. He was rather a bright lad, and the son of the rich man of our very poor neighbourhood. At the age of nineteen he unaccountably became furiously mad, from which condition he gradually settled down into harmless insanity. When, as I told you in my other letter I visited my old home in the fall of 1844, I found him still lingering in this wretched condition. In my poetizing mood I could not forget the impression his case made upon me.[6]

Transcriptions of both cantos (under the title "My Childhood's Home I See Again") as they appeared in Lincoln's letters to Johnston can be read online through the Representative Poetry Online web site.

At the end of Lincoln's September 6 letter, he told Johnston that "if I should ever send another [poem], the subject will be a "Bear Hunt."[7] In the next letter that Lincoln sent Johnston (February 25, 1847) Lincoln did in fact send Johnston another poem. Replying to Johnston's offer to publish the first two cantos of his poems, Lincoln wrote: "To say the least, I am not at all displeased with your proposal to publish the poetry, or doggerel, or whatever else it may be called, which I sent you. I consent that it may be done, together which the third canto, which I now send you."[8] It is probable that the third canto Lincoln sent to Johnston was "The Bear Hunt."

Lincoln continued to compose poems in subsequent years, though none as substantial as those written in 1846. On September 28, 1858, Lincoln wrote the following verses "in the autograph album of Rosa Haggard, daughter of the proprietor of the hotel at Winchester, Illinois, where he stayed when speaking at that place on the same date":[9]

       To Rosa—
                           You are young, and I am older;
                              You are hopeful, I am not—
                           Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
                              Pluck the roses ere they rot.

                           Teach your beau to heed the lay—
                              That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
                           That now's as good as any day—
                              To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.[10]

Similarly, on September 30, 1858, Lincoln wrote the following verse to Rosa's sister Linnie Haggard:

       To Linnie—
                           A sweet plaintive song did I hear,
                              And I fancied that she was the singer—
                           May emotions as pure, as that song set a-stir
                              Be the worst that the future shall bring her.[11]

Lincoln's last documented verse was written July 19, 1863, in response to the North's victory in the Battle of Gettysburg:

        Verse on Lee's Invasion of the North [12]

        Gen. Lees invasion of the North written by himself—

               In eighteen sixty three, with pomp,
                         and mighty swell,
               Me and Jeff's Confederacy, went
                         forth to sack Phil-del,
               The Yankees they got arter us, and
                         giv us particular hell,
               And we skedaddled back again,
                         And didn't sack Phil-del.

In 2004, news broke that a poem entitled "The Suicide's Soliloquy," published in the August 25, 1838, issue of the Sangamo Journal, may have been written by Lincoln. While many scholars believe that Lincoln is indeed the author of the poem, there is no consensus. The announcement of the poem's possible author first appeared in the 2004 Spring newsletter of the Abraham Lincoln Association. The text of the poem, along with the introduction that precedes it in the Sangamo Journal, follows below.

THE SUICIDE'S SOLILOQUY.

The following lines were said to have been found
near the bones of a man supposed to have committed
suicide, in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the
Sangamon, some time ago.

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
     Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o'er my carcase growl,
     Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
     Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
     Or by the ravens' cry.

Yes! I've resolved the deed to do,
     And this the place to do it:
This heart I'll rush a dagger through,
     Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
     Who pleasures never know;
By friends consigned to misery,
     By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
     That through my bosom raves,
I'll headlong leap from hell's high brink,
     And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
     May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
     Will help me to forget.

Yes! I'm prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn'd on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from out your sheath,
     And glist'ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
     And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
     Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
     My last—my only friend!


Notes

1. The text of Lincoln's three childhood verses is taken from Roy. P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 1 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 1. Catalog Record

2. See Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds., Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998): 120. Online at http://durer.press.uiuc.edu/wilson/index.html.

3. William Knox's "Mortality, or Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?"—Lincoln's favorite poem.

4. Basler, 366-67.

5. Ibid., 378.

6. Ibid., 384-85.

7. Ibid., 386.

8. Ibid., 392. Both cantos were published in the May 5, 1847 issue of the Quincy Whig, which Johnston co-owned, under the title "The Return." Canto one was subtitled "Part I—Reflection," canto two "Part II—The Maniac." Basler notes that the Whig did not publish the third canto (likely "The Bear-Hunt"), perhaps because Johnston "concluded that it was unsuitable for printing as a companion piece to the other cantos."

9. Roy P. Basler, ed., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 3 (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 203. Catalog Record

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid., 204.

12. The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Supplement, 1832-1865 (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1974), 194.

 

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