Sunday, March 9, 2014

Abe Lincoln, the Poet

Since the sixteenth President of the U.S., Abraham Lincoln, lived and died during the Victorian Era in America, it seems fitting to include a post about him on Victorian Scribbles.
Young Lincoln,
by Charles Keck, Sculptor, 1945

by Alexander Gardner, 1863

I didn't realize Lincoln wrote poetry until I came across a small book, The Poems of Abraham Lincoln, published by Applewood Books, Inc., in 1991. "Small" is the definitive word: There are three poems in all, inspired by a 1844 trip to his childhood home in Indiana.              
(Both pictures here, by the way, are in the public domain.)

It shouldn't be surprising to learn Lincoln was attracted to poetry. He wrote his own speeches with such eloquence and imagery, it was clear he loved language. Still, it was touching to realize he turned to poetry to express matters close to his heart—a new slant on someone who has always ranked in my own heart as one of my most admired American "heroes".

The first poem, "My Childhood's Home," is a bittersweet poem about returning to the childhood home of the title and sadly realizing everyone is gone. Its closing lines are tinged with sadness:

     "I range the fields with pensive tread
          And pace the hollow rooms.
      And feel (companion of the dead)
           I'm living in the tombs."

The second, "But Here's an Object . . ," conveys deep distress over the life of a childhood schoolmate, Matthew Gentry. Matthew, as a child, tried to hurt himself, his mother, and his father; apparently he grew up mad. In the 1944 visit, Lincoln saw that Matthew was still in a terrible state. You can read the full poem, and some history of Matthew's condition HERE . The closing lines of this poem evoke the old cliche, "a fate worse than death," that some states of "madness" inflict—particularly in those days, when mental illness was so little understood and so poorly dealt with:

     "Oh death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
           That keepst the world in fear;
     Why does thou tear more blest ones hence,
           And leave him ling'ring here?"

The third poem, "The Bear Hunt," is the only one of the three with a touch of humor. He describes in great detail, the chase and the hunt, with the dogs tracking the quarry. At the end, even though the bear has been killed by hunters, the dogs are fighting over the corpse, as if to take credit for the outcome. Lincoln's verdict?

     "Conceited whelp! We laugh at thee—
          Now mind, that not a few
     Of pompous, two-legged dogs there be,
          Conceited quite as you."

You can read all three of these poems in their entirety HERE .

So, now I wonder: Were any other U.S. presidents drawn to poetry?
What surprising things have you learned about Lincoln or any other person you consider a hero?