from the Virginia
AT THE GRAVE OF THOMAS LINCOLN
by Bruce Guernsey
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 over two decades, I had not visited
Thomas Lincoln's grave until last spring, two years after
my own father had disappeared. Pop suffered from acute Parkinson's
disease but was able, on occasion, to dress himself and shuffle
about. He did so that fateful May morning and wandered away
from the VA hospital into the forests of rural Pennsylvania.
and confused, he surely had died, but despite an exhaustive
search, we never found where.
an effort to deal with my grief and confusion, I had taken
up long distance running and on one of my ten-mile jaunts,
found myself trotting by Shiloh Cemetery, the resting place
of Thomas Lincoln. I, too, needed a rest and sought one there
where Abraham Lincoln once stood, looking down at the stone
with his father's name chiseled into it. I wanted such a marker
for my own father; I wanted him to be at peace so that our
family could be as well. I guess you could say I was a little
jealous of that special son and began to imagine his voice
as he lowered his head and whispered to his father.
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'sa
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 18321858 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 marginwords
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 honestthe work is very stylized
and sentimentaland 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
linesand as I later learned, his constant reading and
reciting of poetryhelped 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
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
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
"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 syllablesthe
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.
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 dooror 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 ishelp 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.