I will say here, at the outset, that this post is rather long. But I find its content so interesting and moving, that I think the rule of brevity I generally observe, might in this instance be broken. What follows is taken from the beginning of Chapter 64 of Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, Volume One (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1926). The text, which occupies most of six pages in the book, speaks for itself. After it, the reader will find a poem of my own construction: “The Day I Photographed Lincoln.” Written on the fourth day of April, 2005, I don’t pretend it’s anything special; simply, I’ve included it because what Lincoln says in it about poetry brought it immediately to mind while I was reading the book.
There are certain old poems, old stories, old books, clocks, and jackknives, old rose and lavender keepsakes with musk and dusk in them, with a sunset smoke loitering in the faded shine of their walnut and mahogany stain and embellishment.
And we learn them by heart; we memorize their lines and outlines, and put them away in the chests and the attics of our memories, keeping them as keepsakes, taking them out and handling them, reciting their feel and rhythm, scanning their lines, and then putting them back till the next time they will be wanted, for they will always be wanted again.
Abraham Lincoln had such an old keepsake, a rhymed poem with stanzas having for him the sweet pathos of a slow, quaint tune hummed by a young woman to the auburn western sky of a late winter twilight. It spun out and carried further the hymn line, “Vain man, thy fond pursuits forbear.”
It came from an old country across the sea and was written like an air from an old-fashioned spinet with its rosewood touched with a yellow tarnish. It was put together like some old melodrama that measures out life so that we want to cry as we look at it.
In the year he ran for Congress Lincoln sent William Johnston a copy of the poem, and later wrote him, “You ask me who is the author of the piece I sent you, and you do so ask me as to indicate a slight suspicion that I myself am the author. Beyond all question, I am not the author. I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is. Neither do I know who is the author.” The poem read:
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud,A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,He passes from life to his rest in the grave.The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,Be scattered around, and together be laid;And the young and the old, the low and the high,Shall molder to dust, and together shall lie.The infant a mother attended and loved;The mother that infant’s affection was proved;The husband, that mother and infant who blessed:Each, all, are away to their dwelling of rest.The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,Shone beauty and pleasure—her triumphs are by;And the memory of those who loved her and praised,Are alike from the minds of the living erased.The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne,The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn,The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave.The peasant, whose lot was to sow and to reap,The herdsman, who climbed with his goats up the steep,The beggar, who wandered in search of his bread,Have faded away like the grass that we tread.The saint, who enjoyed the communion of Heaven,The sinner, who dared to remain unforgiven,The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.So the multitude goes—like the flower or the weedThat withers away to let others succeed;So the multitude comes—even those we behold,To repeat every tale that has often been told.For we are the same that our fathers have been;We see the same sights that our fathers have seen;We drink the same stream, we feel the same sun,And run the same course that our fathers have run.The thoughts we are thinking, our fathers would think;From the death we are shrinking, our fathers would shrink;To the life we are clinging, they also would cling—But it speeds from us all like a bird on the wing.They loved—but the story we cannot unfold;They scorned—but the heart of the haughty is cold;They grieved—but no wall from their slumber will come;They joyed—but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.They died—aye, they died—we things that are now,That walk on the turf that lies over their brow,And make in their dwellings a transient abode,Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.Yes, hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,Are mingled together in sunshine and rain;And the smile and the tear, the song and the dirge,Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.’Tis the wink of an eye—’tis the draught of a breath—From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroudOh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?
Such was one of the keepsakes of his heart. For him it spun out and carried further the hymn line, “Vain man, thy fond pursuits forbear.” It was written by a young Scotchman, William Knox, who died when he was thirty-six years old in Edinburgh in 1836. And a young Scotchman, Jason Duncan, had first shown it to Lincoln in New Salem days.
In the letter to Johnston, explaining that beyond all question he was not the author of the poem, he also wrote: “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 are 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 subject divided the thing into four little divisions or cantos, the first only of which I send you now, and may send the others hereafter.” The enclosure read:
My childhood’s 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 lostIn dreamy shadows rise,And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,Seen hallowed, pure, and bright,Like scenes in some enchanted isleAll bathed in liquid light.As dusky mountains please the eyeWhen 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 allWe’ve known, but know no more.Near twenty years have passed awaySince here I bid farewellTo woods and fields, and scenes of play,And playmates loved so well.Where many were, but few remainOf old familiar things;But seeing them, to mind gainThe 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 naught 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.
* * *
What follows in the book is another letter to Johnston, penned by Lincoln five months later. This letter, too, contains a poem of his own making, the subject of which was one Matthew Gentry, a young man he knew, who, at the age of nineteen, “unaccountably became furiously mad, from which condition he gradually settled down into harmless insanity.” The poem consists of eleven verses; so that I don’t have to type too awfully much longer, I’ll give just the first and the last:
But here’s an object more of dreadThan aught the grave contains—A human form with reason fled,While wretched life remains.. . .O death! thou awe-inspiring princeThat keepst the world in fear,Why dost thou tear more blest ones hence,And leave him lingering here?
* * *
And now, my poem. “The Day I Photographed Lincoln” is taken from the first volume of my (mostly) unpublished Songs and Letters:
The Day I Photographed LincolnI asked himif there was a quiet placewhere we might be free.He said, No. That is not to be.Then he looked down at his boots.Like the leather of his face,they were scuffed beyond repairand undermined by creases.A century later he said,Would you like a cup of tea?I thanked him and said I would,then we gazed out at the rain.It has been like this for days now,the president explained.Sometimes I think it will never stop.And lately I see the dead,lying here, and here, and here,and there, down below.I could see them too,the unmarried boys, the bearded men,but when I tried to find them with the lens,I saw nothing but the wind.Tell me. Do you read poetry?His question took me by surprise.I am now firmly convinced, said he,only verse can save the people.I have also learned,at an unforgivable cost,that its absence marksthe beginning of our grief.As he confided his belief,the dead men came to their feet.One by one, to better hear his words,they gathered at the window.It was then, without knowing,that the great man posed.