Meet Abraham Lincoln, poet. 

What makes them great.
June 22 2010 7:14 AM

Firmness in the Write

Why Abraham Lincoln's poetry is the real thing. 

Abraham Lincoln. Click image to expand.
Abraham Lincoln

The United States has had a head of state who was also a great writer. Only Marcus Aurelius can compete with Abraham Lincoln. Like many prose masters, Lincoln was a reader and writer of poetry. His poem "My Childhood-Home I See Again" combines polished but conventional passages in ballad meter with another element, powerfully imagined and turbulent. The poem is worth thinking about in relation to Abraham Lincoln's mind. It also raises interesting questions about poetry itself—the art's ability to compound the meanings of words with the force of bodily gestures.

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Lincoln included "My Childhood-Home I See Again" in a letter, where he refers to it as "a little canto of what I call poetry." The more ordinary part of the poem (published by newspapers after the assassination and omitting the more unsettling original passages) begins by describing a return to Lincoln's childhood home in Indiana after 20 years away. These opening stanzas look back on the early years with an idealizing, though loss-conscious nostalgia, "as distant mountains please the eye." Then, hearing about how many in the old place have died, he feels he is "living in the tombs."

The shift from those relatively standard elegiac sentiments begins with "And here's an object more of dread," which introduces the story of Matthew Gentry, a childhood schoolmate (three years older) who was, like Lincoln, "a rather bright lad"—as Lincoln calls him in the letter—and, unlike Lincoln, "the son of the rich man of our very poor neighborhood." At 19, Matthew went violently insane and spent the rest of his life locked up. In his confinement, the crazy man sang, and Lincoln describes himself as drawn to the singing: He "stole away" at night to hear it, "all silently and still." The song, says the poem, seemed like "the funeral dirge … of reason dead and gone." Yet it was "sweet" as well as "distant" and "lone": adjectives that re-enforce the idea of fellow-feeling by Lincoln toward Matthew. The president describes that furtive pleasure in eloquent lines, indelibly simple and mysterious:

Air held his breath; the trees all still
....Seemed sorr'wing angels round,
Their swelling tears in dew-drops fell
....Upon the list'ning ground.

This is a great prose writer breaking through into actual poetry, the art that lives between speech and music, as suggested by Lincoln's term "canto." There's an expressive, songlike, physical grace in the pauses after "held his breath" and "trees" and in the movement of "fell/ Upon," where the verb's energy presses across the end of the line. Oblivion and consciousness, violence and reason, magnetism and dread, find a striking, uneasy balance in Lincoln's striking, mysterious poem—befitting the man who wrote it.

"My Childhood-Home I See Again"

My childhood-home I see again,
....And gladden with the view;
And still as mem'ries crowd my brain,
....There's sadness in it too.

O memory! thou mid-way world
....'Twixt Earth and Paradise,
Where things decayed, and loved ones lost
....In dreamy shadows rise.

And freed from all that's gross or vile,
....Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle,
....All bathed in liquid light.

As distant mountains please the eye,
....When twilight chases day—
As bugle-tones, that, passing by,
....In distance die away—

As leaving some grand water-fall
....We ling'ring, list it's roar,
So memory will hallow all
....We've known, but know no more.

Now twenty years have passed away,
....Since here I bid farewell
To woods, and fields, and scenes of play
....And school-mates loved so well.

Where many were, how few remain
....Of old familiar things!
But seeing these to mind again
....The lost and absent brings.

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

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

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

And 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.

Poor Matthew! I have ne'er forgot
....When first with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
....And mother strove to kill;

And terror spread, and neighbours ran,
....Your dang'rous strength to bind;
And soon a howling crazy man,
....Your limbs were fast confined.

How then you writhed and shrieked aloud,
....Your bones and sinnews bared;
And fiendish on the gaping crowd,
....With burning eye-balls glared.

And begged, and swore, and wept, and prayed,
....With maniac laughter joined—
How fearful are the signs displayed,
....By pangs that kill the mind!

And when at length, tho' drear and long,
....Time soothed your fiercer woes—
How plaintively your mournful song,
....Upon the still night rose.

I've heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
....Far-distant, sweet, and lone;
The funeral dirge it ever seemed
....Of reason dead and gone.

To drink it's strains, I've stole away,
....All silently and still,
Ere yet the rising god of day
....Had streaked the Eastern hill.

Air held his breath; the trees all still
....Seemed sorr'wing angels round,
Their swelling tears in dew-drops fell
....Upon the list'ning ground.

But this is past, and nought remains
....That raised you o'er the brute.
Your mad'ning shrieks and soothing strains
....Are like forever mute.

Now fare thee well: more thou the cause
....Than subject now of woe.
All mental pangs, but time's kind laws,
....Hast lost the power to know.

And now away to seek some scene
....Less painful than the last—
With less of horror mingled in
....The present and the past.

The very spot where grew the bread
....That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread,
....And feel I'm part of thee!

Click the arrow on the audio player below to hear Robert Pinsky read "My Childhood-Home I See Again." You can also download the recording or subscribe to Slate's Poetry Podcast on iTunes.

Slate Poetry Editor Robert Pinsky will be joining in discussion of "My Childhood-Home I See Again" this week. Post your questions and comments on the poem, and he'll respond and participate. You can also browse "Fray" discussions of previous classic poems.

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Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky is Slate's poetry editor. His Selected Poems is now available.

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