The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

Review: ‘Lincoln Speaks’ at the Morgan Library, New York City, through June 7, 2015

Among Abraham Lincoln’s admirers, a group to which I belong, there is an unfortunate tendency towards overenthusiasm. As with God, we ascribe to Lincoln contradictory superlatives—that this ruthless and effective politician was really just a homespun fellow, a modest man and true democrat in the best sense. But while God can manage to be both all-powerful and supremely good, no man who was born in the dirt and rose to be president of the United States can also be called "modest."

John Hay, who as Lincoln’s secretary should know, said of this widely held belief: "It is absurd to call him a modest man." But Hay’s remark gives no account of the origins of Lincoln’s vast ambition, which by the end of his life seemed to become a sense of destiny tied up with the fate of the Union itself.

Lincoln once told his law partner that he believed his mother to have been the illegitimate daughter of a "well-bred Virginia farmer or planter." The motif of the incognito prince or chosen one is common in children’s literature—consider The Once and Future King, and its Disney version, The Sword and the Stone, and for that matter The Lion King, the Harry Potter series, and many more—because it appeals to the native solipsism of young people: I too could be a prince or a princess in disguise! It is easy to imagine the belief in his descent from aristocratic blood giving Lincoln comfort in his miserable early youth, and it seems reasonable to speculate that this belief had something to do with his sense of being destined for noble things.

At the Morgan Library’s fine exhibit of writings in his own hand, "Lincoln Speaks," we are reminded of Lincoln’s love for Shakespeare’s gothic treatment of the themes of ambition and fate: Macbeth. In a response to a self-promoting letter inviting him to attend a theatrical performance in Washington, Lincoln wrote the actor James Hackett in 1863 that some plays of Shakespeare’s, "I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are ‘Lear,’ ‘Richard Third,’ ‘Henry Eighth,’ ‘Hamlet,’ and especially ‘Macbeth.’ I think nothing equals ‘Macbeth.’"

The exhibit includes a volume of Shakespeare owned by Lincoln, from which he reportedly read aloud passages of Macbeth "for several hours" to fellow notables on a steamboat trip up the Potomac, following talks with Grant and Sherman, a few days before his death in April 1865. The pathos of this story is evident only in retrospect: I imagine that his aides were less than thrilled at the time.

Indeed, there was wide mockery of Lincoln’s literary tastes when Hackett, the actor, published the letter Lincoln had sent him, which was then picked up by unfriendly editors who showered it with, as Hackett put it in a note of apology to the president, "satirical abuse."

Lincoln’s response to Hackett’s apology is not included in "Lincoln Speaks," but it deserves more fame than it has received, being a minor masterpiece of correspondence:

My dear Sir:

Yours of Oct. 22nd is received, as also was, in due course, that of Oct. 3rd. I look forward with pleasure to the fulfillment of the promise made in the former.

Give yourself no uneasiness on the subject mentioned in that of the 22nd.

My note to you I certainly did not expect to see in print; yet I have not been much shocked by the newspaper comments upon it. Those comments constitute a fair specimen of what has occurred to me through life. I have endured a great deal of ridicule without much malice; and have received a great deal of kindness, not quite free from ridicule. I am used to it.

Yours truly
A. Lincoln

Generosity, forgiveness, more than a hint of self-pity, all communicated in elegant brevity. Despite the appearance of thick skin, Lincoln, like all of us, disliked being ridiculed. At various points in his life, Lincoln tried his hand at poetry, and when a friend suggested publishing "My Childhood Home I See Again," in 1847, Lincoln responded:

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 … but let names be suppressed by all means. I have not sufficient hope of the verses attracting any favorable notice to tempt me to risk being ridiculed for having written them.

Lincoln’s request for anonymity also shows a certain level of self-knowledge. His verse wasn’t ridiculous, exactly—there are nice moments—but it wasn’t great, even as light verse. Consider this stanza from Lincoln’s ballad "The Bear Hunt," an autograph copy of which is included in the Morgan’s exhibit:

But who did this, and how to trace
What’s true from what’s a lie,
Like lawyers, in a murder case
They stoutly argufy.

It appears that Lincoln wrote "The Bear Hunt" shortly after his election to Congress. This was a man of capacious energy, curiosity, talent, and an evidently vast desire to be recognized and remembered. Somewhat uncharacteristically for American politics, these qualities were matched by a sense of honor that, in retrospect, can seem extreme. As a young man, Lincoln had foolishly promised a friend that he would marry her cousin if the young woman traveled from Kentucky to Illinois. He wanted desperately to get out of the arrangement but could not simply renege. "Lincoln Speaks" has the letter Lincoln wrote to the girl, Mary Owens, in 1837:

You would have to be poor without the means of hiding your poverty. Do you believe that you could bear that patiently? . . . What you have said to me may have been in jest, or I may have misunderstood it. If so, then let it be forgotten; if otherwise, I much wish you would think seriously before you decide. . . . My opinion is that you had better not do it.

Lincoln still proposed, though, and Mary (unsurprisingly) said no. His eventual marriage to Mary Todd was also driven by a sense of guilt: after proposing he sensed that the union was not for the best, but could not bring himself to go back on his promise. Decades of managing an unstable spouse awaited him by way of reward. And all of these affairs must be considered in light of the fact that Lincoln’s earliest love, Ann Rutledge, had died suddenly of typhoid fever at the age of 22, not long after Lincoln had given her his copy of Kirkham’s English Grammar, inscribed, "Ann M. Rutledge is now learning grammer [sic]."

No wonder the man was melancholy! And no wonder Macbeth appealed to him. Macbeth is a dark play, and it is surely about fate, but it is also a study in the experience of guilt: And there is no way that a man with Lincoln’s powerfully rigid sense of integrity, paired with his personal ambition, could have gone through life without feeling the frequent sense that he could be the guilty one—especially when hundreds of thousands of bodies accumulated as a consequence of his convictions.

The Morgan’s exhibit emphasizes something that has long been understood to be critical to Lincoln’s legacy: that in addition to being a great president, he was a great writer who, as Jacques Barzun put it, "toiled above all to find the true order for his thoughts—order first, and then a lightning-like brevity." And though verse wasn’t his strong suit—we all have genres we are meant for, and others we ought to avoid—there is a case to be made that much of his finest oratory constitutes a kind of poetry.

This is not only because some of that rhetoric can be scanned (parts of the Gettysburg Address, for example, work quite well as blank verse) but because in their depth of substance, their technical qualities—especially their sustained, complex metaphors—and the way that they were intended to form a national self-conception in the aftermath of the war, the speeches correspond to a deeper and more ancient conception of "poetry" than plain versification.

The Morgan points out that the imagery of the Gettysburg Address is "biblical," and indeed it is. The metaphor seems to be that the American experiment of a free and equal nation can be understood like the life of Christ: It was "brought forth" by the Founders, "conceived" in liberty, is, at the moment of the speech, being tested, and the audience of the speech must resolve to give the nation a "new birth of Freedom." Once reborn, it "shall not perish from the earth."

The metaphor shifts from resurrection to righteous judgment in the Second Inaugural, with America cast in the role of a nation punished for its sins, spoken of in a tone that the Hebrew Bible’s prophets reserved for a recalcitrant Israel:

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. [Not only does this sentence scan—it rhymes.] Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’

This speech is often presented as evidence of Lincoln’s intent to heal the nation in the coming postwar period—it is so presented at the Morgan. This is no doubt a fair reading, especially of the final paragraph ("With malice toward none…") but the terrifying implications of the speech’s middle section are ignored at the peril of entirely misunderstanding Lincoln’s character. Consider that this is the man who wrote an order that a Confederate prisoner be executed for every black Union soldier executed in Southern captivity. He cited "the law of nations" as justification.

The Morgan’s curators are not the first to make the case that Lincoln’s greatness was tied to his gift for language—that with oratory like the Second Inaugural he was not only pursuing an immediate political end, but also telling the story of the war in a way that would form the national identity of many millions yet unborn. This, incidentally, is part of what the Greeks understood to be the task of a poet: a maker of stories, a teacher of nations.