Lincoln the Poet



On the evening of this day, April 14, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was shot at Ford’s Theater. He died the next morning in a lodging house across the street.

People seem as saddened by the story of Lincoln’s assassination today as they were in 1865. I find myself thinking a lot about Lincoln and the Civil War in April, what with the war starting with the firing on Fort Sumter on April 12, 1861, and Lee’s surrender at Appamattox, Virginia, on April 9, 1865. I also think about the explosion of the steamboat Sultana on the Mississippi River on April 27, 1865, killing at least 1,700 passengers, most of them Union prisoners of war just released from captivity. (Obviously, I’m a Civil War buff; but the Sultana is of special interest to me because there’s some question whether my great-great-great-grandfather died in the explosion or perished months before in the Cahaba Prison.)

It’s also appropriate to think about Lincoln the poet during National Poetry Month. The Library of Congress offers an online feature about Lincoln and his poetry, including samples. There’s also a page on “Abraham Lincoln and Poetry” that explores his love of reading (and memorizing) poetry and discusses the poems he liked best.

Robert Pinsky, Slate poetry editor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, discusess Lincoln’s poetry in “Firmness in the Write—Why Abraham Lincoln’s poetry is the real thing.” Pinsky’s article includes the entire text of Lincoln’s poem, “My Childhood-Home I See Again,” with lyrical but moribund passages that conflict with the popular image of Lincoln as a lighthearted teller of jokes and stories. (Don’t overlook the comments that follow Pinsky’s article, especially if you’re interested in the craft of poetry.)

I love the poetry of Lincoln’s prose even more than his verses. To me, “The Gettysburg Address” is almost a prose poem in itself. And the concluding lines of Lincoln’s first inaugural address move me as deeply as any poetry I’ve ever read. I can imagine the lines broken like this:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies,
but friends. We must not be enemies.
Though passion may have strained, it must not break
our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave,
to every living heart and
hearthstone, all over this broad land,
will yet swell the chorus of the Union,
when again touched, as surely they will be,
by the better angels of our nature.


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