June 09, 2004

Lincoln's Suicide Poem

Earlier this week, I linked to a New Yorker "talk of the town" piece in which Joshua Wolf Shenk discusses the apparent discovery of Abraham Lincoln's lost "suicide poem." (As Shenk points out, Lincoln scholars disagree on whether the 36-line poem from 1838 can be attributed to Lincoln; Douglas Wilson thinks that it can, but David Herbert Donald disagrees. At Cliopatria, Ralph Luker quotes an email from Michael Burlingame noting that the verse "certainly sounds like Lincoln.")

The poem isn't exactly a masterpiece of American literature, but I still find it oddly intriguing. Here's the conclusion:


Sweet steel! Come forth from out your sheath,
And glist'ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My lastómy only friend!


Why am I intrigued by such a melodramatic little verse? Two reasons, actually. First, I've always found Lincoln's melancholy and fatalism extremely appealing--perhaps, in part, because I have a melancholic disposition myself. Lincoln's words can be depressing, but it shaped some of his greatest speeches and I think it helped to influence one of his most appealing characteristics, his realistic attitude toward war. I don't know that I'd agree with all of Lincoln's war-time decisions (his record on civil liberties, for example, wasn't the greatest), but when you read his letters and his speeches, you get the sense that he had no illusions about what he was doing; contrast this outlook with that of another war-time president I admire, Franklin Roosevelt, who often seemed a little too certain that all of his decisions were right.

Second, you can make a case that Lincoln's verse-writing is closely connected to his oratory: as Garry Wills wrote in Lincoln at Gettysburg, "Lincoln, like most writers of great prose, began by writing bad poetry." Would Lincoln have been such a great speaker if he hadn't been willing to dabble in mediocre verse? Is the greater popularity of poetry in 19th-century America in any way connected to the superior quality of American oratory before 1900? (It's hard to imagine George W. Bush ever writing a poem, after all, even if his wife once tried to make us think he had; then again, some of the wisest sayings of our president have been combined to form the verse masterpiece "Make the Pie Higher!") It's fascinating, then, to read some of the Lincoln poems whose authorship is not in dispute.

I wish I had something to add to this discussion; I suspect that a Lincoln scholar could rip holes in the analysis I've offered above. I'll look forward, though, to learning more about scholarly reaction to the poem--and to how it changes historians' view of my favorite American president.

Posted by Ed at June 9, 2004 06:19 PM
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