Although “The Gettysburg Address” is a wonderful document to use when teaching the Civil War, war, peace or great oration, I had not thought of Abraham Lincoln as a poet. I guess his scratching out an eighty-four word masterpiece on the back of an envelope might have tipped me off, but….
What makes this poem interesting is that it is not about the weight of history on Lincoln’s shoulders, but a schoolmate of his. Lincoln, we know, was poor; log cabin, reading with a candle, and walking five miles to return a library book. The subject of this poem is rich. Yet, Lincoln became president while this boy went mad. Lincoln does not tease a lesson in hard work from this tale, but simply reflects about fate. In the end, that belief in fate is what, in my mind, makes Lincoln great.
I stumbled across this in “Slate”, the online magazine. It is an interesting source for poetry, poetry discussions and the like. Robert Pinsky’s article was in Slate. The poem’s backstory, an audio of Pinsky reading it, and links to discussusions are there, too.
It is a difficult poem, and the subject matter can be considered mature. Still, for its look at a man–yes, Lincoln was just a man–shrouded in heroic light, this poem and a long and in-depth and detailed discussion might make him real to your students.
My Childhood-Home I See Again
My childhood-home I see again,
….And gladden with the view;
And still as mem’ries crowd my brain,
….There’s sadness in it too.
O memory! thou mid-way world
….’Twixt Earth and Paradise,
Where things decayed, and loved ones lost
….In dreamy shadows rise.
And freed from all that’s gross or vile,
….Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle,
….All bathed in liquid light.
As distant mountains please the eye,
….When twilight chases day—
As bugle-tones, that, passing by,
….In distance die away—
As leaving some grand water-fall
….We ling’ring, list it’s roar,
So memory will hallow all
….We’ve known, but know no more.
Now twenty years have passed away,
….Since here I bid farewell
To woods, and fields, and scenes of play
….And school-mates loved so well.
Where many were, how few remain
….Of old familiar things!
But seeing these 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 grey,
….And half of all are dead.
I hear the lone 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 (companions of the dead)
….I’m living in the tombs.
And here’s an object more of dread,
….Than ought the grave contains—
A human-form, with reason fled,
….While wretched life remains.
Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright,—
….A fortune-favored child—
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
….A haggard mad-man wild.
Poor Matthew! I have ne’er forgot
….When first with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
….And mother strove to kill;
And terror spread, and neighbours ran,
….Your dang’rous strength to bind;
And soon a howling crazy man,
….Your limbs were fast confined.
How then you writhed and shrieked aloud,
….Your bones and sinnews bared;
And fiendish on the gaping crowd,
….With burning eye-balls glared.
And begged, and swore, and wept, and prayed,
….With maniac laughter joined—
How fearful are the signs displayed,
….By pangs that kill the mind!
And when at length, tho’ drear and long,
….Time soothed your fiercer woes—
How plaintively your mournful song,
….Upon the still night rose.
I’ve heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
….Far-distant, sweet, and lone;
The funeral dirge it ever seemed
….Of reason dead and gone.
To drink it’s strains, I’ve stole away,
….All silently and still,
Ere yet the rising god of day
….Had streaked the Eastern hill.
Air held his breath; the trees all still
….Seemed sorr’wing angels round,
Their swelling tears in dew-drops fell
….Upon the list’ning ground.
But this is past, and nought remains
….That raised you o’er the brute.
Your mad’ning shrieks and soothing strains
….Are like forever mute.
Now fare thee well: more thou the cause
….Than subject now of woe.
All mental pangs, but time’s kind laws,
….Hast lost the power to know.
And now away to seek some scene
….Less painful than the last—
With less of horror mingled in
….The present and the past.
The very spot where grew the bread
….That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread,
….And feel I’m part of thee!