Abraham Lincoln's Scarce Reference to Deaths of Mother and Sister, With Accompanying Poem About Memory

April 18, 1846

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Abraham Lincoln's Scarce Reference to Deaths of Mother and Sister, With Accompanying Poem About Memory
Autograph Letter Signed
4 pages | SMC 1553

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      Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what it means to want to escape from such things
      - T.S. Eliot 
      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.    

      It is not surprising, really, that so vast a world as childhood's formative emotions would, by Lincoln, be couched in the verbal equivalent of nutshells: under discussion, then, is poetry. Lincoln reports he has not yet read Poe's "The Raven; enjoyed, nonetheless, a parody of it, "The Pole-Cat", lately published in the Quincy Whig; and thinks William Knox's dirge-like "Mortality", superb. Indeed, he declares, he "would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write" such a work. No doubt its lugubrious references to a dead mother and child, brought next to mind his own composition; and here Lincoln, in explaining its origins, mentions the virtually 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 one other time, in writing, the death of his mother and never, but here, his sister. Indeed, except for three scant campaign-generated autobiographical references; a brief response, to an erstwhile Spencer County, Indiana employer, about canvassing there as the Republican nominee; and this, the most revealing of all his words on the subject - expressed, chiefly, in poetry - nothing, apparently, could adequately describe, as a man, what he felt as a boy, growing up in Indiana. All he had to say, apparently, he said here, as follows:

      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,

      And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,
      Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
      Like scenes in some enchanted isle
      All bathed in liquid light.

      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.

      Near twenty years have passed away
      Since here I bid farewell
      To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
      And playmates loved so well.

      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." 

      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.
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