Lincoln-lovers and New Yorkers both – about an equal number – who have not yet gone down to Madison and 36th to catch “Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation” will want to do so, soon, before it closes on June 7th. Tracing, from boyhood on, the evolution of Lincoln’s use of language, some 80 manuscripts display how he “chose words with a lawyer’s precision and poet’s sense of rhythm.” This is apt, since Lincoln was, in parts and small, both. An exceptionally rare example of his poetry, in fact, is among several pieces on loan to the exhibit from the Shapell Manuscript Foundation. Indeed, along with two other pieces from its collection, almost the whole of what Lincoln wrote about loss – as a teenager, a successful lawyer, and president – is on exhibit. The most revelatory of these, and the longest, is the 1846 poem featured here…
Whether Lincoln, during the course of his lifetime, wrote millions of words, or merely hundreds of thousands, one stark fact emerges: less than a thousand of them had to do with the quarter of his life he spent growing up in Spencer County, Indiana. This letter and accompanying poem contains then, roughly half of what the most literary of all American presidents would write on the virtually unmentioned subject of his childhood. It is a seminal account, and in it, may be found both the cause, and effect, of his profound reticence.
Having grown up, as he writes here, in as “unpoetical as any spot of the earth”, he nonetheless found even a fleeting 1844 visit to Spencer County “aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry.” He would, then “give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write” as “superb” a poem as early 19th century Scottish poet William Knox’s dirge-like “Mortality.” No doubt its lugubrious references to a dead mother and child, brought to mind his own composition; and here Lincoln, in explaining its origins, mentions the unmentionable: those two sudden and terrible losses, of his beloved mother when he was nine, and of his sister a decade later.
The piece of poetry of my own which I alluded to, I was led to write under the following circumstances. In the fall of 1844, thinking I might aid some to carry the State of Indiana for Mr. Clay, I went into the neighborhood in that State in which I was raised, where my mother and only sister were buried, and from which I had been absent about fifteen years. That part of the country is, within itself, as unpoetical as any spot of the earth; but still, seeing it and its objects and inhabitants aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry; though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question. When I got to writing, the change of subjects divided the thing into four little divisions or cantos, the first only of which I send you now…
Lincoln mentioned but two other times, in writing, the simple fact that his mother had died when he was boy – and never, but here, that his sister had died as well. Indirectly, in his 1862 letter to a young woman grieving the death of her father in battle, Fanny McCullough, he allowed how sorrow came to the young with bitterest agony “because it takes them unawares” adding, “I have had experience enough to know what I say.” Here, however, are Lincoln’s most revealing words on the devastating losses of his boyhood – and the source, most likely, of his lifelong melancholia…
My childhood home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.
O Memory! thou midway world
‘Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise…
… So memory will hallow all
We’ve known, but know no more.
Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell…
… Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, 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 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.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.
Lincoln’s sense that he lived in the tombs of his youth, did not go unnoticed. From his earliest days to the last haunted photo, he was seen as veritably dripping misery as he walked. “No element of Mr. Lincoln’s character,” a colleague declared, “was so marked, obvious and ingrained as his mysterious and profound melancholy.” Why that was so, this letter and poem suggest, was his life in Indiana, “where things decayed and loved ones lost.”
ABRAHAM LINCOLN. 1809-1865. The 16th President of the United States.
Autograph Letter Signed (“A. Lincoln”), incorporating the Autograph Manuscript of his poem beginning “My childhood home I see again”, 4 pages, quarto, Tremont, Illinois, April 16, 1846. To Andrew Johnston.
Five Shapell Manuscript Foundation original Lincoln autographs – including “My Childhood Home I See Again”; his December 23, 1862 letter to Fanny McCullough; and a rare circa 1824-1826 notebook page, on which he copied some five lines of Isaac Watt’s hymn “Time, what an empty vapor ’tis!” – are currently on display at the Morgan Library’s “Lincoln Speaks: Words That Transformed a Nation” exhibition in New York City, and may be viewed there until June 7, 2015.