Tuesday, September 7, 2010
Learning about Lincoln through his Poetry
On Sunday, September 6, 1846, Abraham Lincoln sent his friend Andrew Johnston a poem. It was the second canto of work he started a couple years before when visiting his old home in Indiana during the 1844 campaign.
Lincoln was living in Springfield at the time with his wife Mary, his young son Robert and baby Eddie who had been born earlier the same year. The young family appeared happy, settled in a larger home with their two healthy sons.
Sad times of course were in Lincoln's future, including the deaths of three of his children and the struggles of our country during the Civil War. But sad times were in his past as well. Lincoln lost his mother when he was only nine and his sister died young in childbirth.
Much has also been speculated about Ann Rutledge, the young woman with whom Lincoln had an "understanding." She died of fever before they could marry and Lincoln was said to have mourned deeply.
Many reports exist of Abraham Lincoln's melancholy nature and he was fearful that the bouts of depression would overcome him one day. Reading this poem gives a little insight to this fear.
In the cover letter to the poem Lincoln writes: "The subject of the present [poem] is an insane man. His name is Matthew Gentry. He is three years older than I, and when we were boys we went to school together. He was rather a bright lad, and the son of the rich man of our very poor neighbourhood.
"At the age of nineteen he unaccountably became furiously mad, from which condition he gradually settled down into harmless insanity. When, as I told you in my other letter I visited my old home in the fall of 1844, I found him still lingering in this wretched condition. In my poetizing mood I could not forget the impressions his case made upon me."
The poem's last lines read:
"O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
That keepst the world in fear;
Why dost thou tear more blest ones hence.
And leave him ling'ring here?"
Treatment for insanity lacked much in the nineteenth century. Imagine the dread he must have felt seeing his friend literally go crazy when they were youths together and then suffer from depression himself for the rest of his life.
You can read the poem in its entirety for yourself at the Lincoln Boyhood National Park website.
Labels: Abraham Lincoln