The Forgetten Poetry of Abraham Lincoln

Abraham LincolnDid you know Abraham Lincoln was a poet? He may be best known for his Gettysburg Address and winning the Civil War, but he should be also remembered as an avid reader and amateur poet. Reading these poems is a fantastic way to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday on February 12.

Like many of us, Lincoln began writing poetry as a teenager. This is one of his first poems:

Abraham Lincoln
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When

It was written sometime between 15 and 17.

Here are a few more of his poems written inside his arithmetic books:

Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen he will be good
but god knows When Time What an [empty] vaper
tis and days how swift they are swift as an Indian arr[ow]
fly on like a shooting star the [present] moment Just [is here]
then slide away in h[as]te that we [can] never say they[‘re ours]
but [only say] th[ey]’re past

Abraham Lincoln is my nam[e]
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read

Sadly, Lincoln’s most famous writing “Chronicles of Reuben” is now lost. Ol’ Abe was famous for his mischief as a 20-something-year-old man. If something displeased him, he’d write a satire.

He was even part of a poetical society. He’d often submit his poems for publication and even have a few in newspapers here and there. Again, most of them are lost. Luckily, this amusing verse from “on Seduction” still survives:

Whatever Spiteful fools may Say — .
Each jealous, ranting yelper —
No woman ever played the whore
Unless She had a man to help her.

He was quite the wordsmith, I’d say.

It wasn’t until February 24, 1846, did Lincoln start taking his poetry to a more serious route. In a letter to his buddy Andrew Johnston, a fellow lawyer, Lincoln wrote:

Feeling a little poetic this evening, I have concluded to redeem my promise this evening by sending you the piece you expressed the wish to have. You find it enclosed. I wish I could think of something else to say; but I believe I can not. By the way, would you like to see a piece of poetry of my own making? I have a piece that is almost done, but I find a deal of trouble to finish it.

Here is the poem in its entirety:

“My Childhood Home I See Again”
[I]
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 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-tones 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.

[II]

But 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;

When terror spread, and neighbors ran,
Your dange’rous strength to bind;
And soon, a howling crazy man
Your limbs were fast confined.

How then you strove and shrieked aloud,
Your bones and sinews bared;
And fiendish on the gazing crowd,
With burning eye-balls glared–

And begged, and swore, and wept and prayed
With maniac laught[ter?] joined–
How fearful were those signs displayed
By pangs that killed thy mind!

And when at length, tho’ drear and long,
Time smoothed thy fiercer woes,
How plaintively thy 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 stealthily and still,
Ere yet the rising God of day
Had streaked the Eastern hill.

Air held his breath; trees, with the spell,
Seemed sorrowing angels round,
Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell
Upon the listening ground.

But this is past; and nought remains,
That raised thee o’er the brute.
Thy piercing shrieks, and soothing strains,
Are like, forever mute.

Now fare thee well–more thou the cause,
Than subject now of woe.
All mental pangs, by time’s kind laws,
Hast lost the power to know.

O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
That keepst the world in fear;
Why dost thos tear more blest ones hence,
And leave him ling’ring here?

Lincoln stated,

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 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 think into four little divisions or cantos, the first only of which I send you now and may send the others hereafter.

In a letter to Jonston, he stated that he would likely write another poem about a bear. Here it is:

“The Bear Hunt”

A wild-bear chace, didst never see?
Then hast thou lived in vain.
Thy richest bump of glorious glee,
Lies desert in thy brain.
When first my father settled here,
‘Twas then the frontier line:
The panther’s scream, filled night with fear
And bears preyed on the swine.

But wo for Bruin’s short lived fun,
When rose the squealing cry;
Now man and horse, with dog and gun,
For vengeance, at him fly.

A sound of danger strikes his ear;
He gives the breeze a snuff;
Away he bounds, with little fear,
And seeks the tangled rough.

On press his foes, and reach the ground,
Where’s left his half munched meal;
The dogs, in circles, scent around,
And find his fresh made trail.

With instant cry, away they dash,
And men as fast pursue;
O’er logs they leap, through water splash,
And shout the brisk halloo.

Now to elude the eager pack,
Bear shuns the open ground;
Th[r]ough matted vines, he shapes his track
And runs it, round and round.

The tall fleet cur, with deep-mouthed voice,
Now speeds him, as the wind;
While half-grown pup, and short-legged fice,
Are yelping far behind.

And fresh recruits are dropping in
To join the merry corps:
With yelp and yell,–a mingled din–
The woods are in a roar.

And round, and round the chace now goes,
The world’s alive with fun;
Nick Carter’s horse, his rider throws,
And more, Hill drops his gun.

Now sorely pressed, bear glances back,
And lolls his tired tongue;
When as, to force him from his track,
An ambush on him sprung.

Across the glade he sweeps for flight,
And fully is in view.
The dogs, new-fired, by the sight,
Their cry, and speed, renew.

The foremost ones, now reach his rear,
He turns, they dash away;
And circling now, the wrathful bear,
They have him full at bay.

At top of speed, the horse-men come,
All screaming in a row,
“Whoop! Take him Tiger. Seize him Drum.”
Bang,–bang–the rifles go.

And furious now, the dogs he tears,
And crushes in his ire,
Wheels right and left, and upward rears,
With eyes of burning fire.

But leaden death is at his heart,
Vain all the strength he plies.
And, spouting blood from every part,
He reels, and sinks, and dies.

And now a dinsome clamor rose,
‘Bout who should have his skin;
Who first draws blood, each hunter knows,
This prize must always win.

But who did this, and how to trace
What’s true from what’s a lie,
Like lawyers, in a murder case
They stoutly argufy.

Aforesaid fice, of blustering mood,
Behind, and quite forgot,
Just now emerging from the wood,
Arrives upon the spot.

With grinning teeth, and up-turned hair–
Brim full of spunk and wrath,
He growls, and seizes on dead bear,
And shakes for life and death.

And swells as if his skin would tear,
And growls and shakes again;
And swears, as plain as dog can swear,
That he has won the skin.

Conceited whelp! we laugh at thee–
Nor mind, that now a few
Of pompous, two-legged dogs there be,
Conceited quite as you.

These two poems are his most substantial writings. However, he did continue writing until his death.

On September 28, 1958, Lincoln wrote this “in the autograph album of Rosa Haggard, daughter of the proprietor of the hotel at Winchester, Illinois, where he stayed when speaking at that place on the same date”:

To Rosa—
You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grow colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.

Teach your beau to heed the lay—
That sunshine soon is lost in shade—
That now’s as good as any day—
To take thee, Rose, ere she fade.

Abe wrote a similar poem to Rosa’s sister two days later:

To Linnie—
A sweet plaintive song did I hear,
And I fancied that she was the singer—
May emotions as pure, as that song set a-stir
Be the worst that the future shall bring her.

On July 18, 1863, Lincoln wrote this after he heard of the North’s victory in Gettysburg:

“Verse on Lee’s Invasion of the North”

Gen. Lees invasion of the North written by himself—

In eighteen sixty three, with pomp,
and mighty swell,
Me and Jeff’s Confederacy, went
forth to sack Phil-del,
he Yankees they got arter us, and
giv us particular hell,
And we skedaddled back again,
And didn’t sack Phil-del.

In 2004, a poem was found believed to have been written by Abraham Lincoln and was published way back in August 25, 1838 in an issue of Sangamo Journal.

“THE SUICIDE’S SOLILOQUY”

The following lines were said to have been found
near the bones of a man supposed to have committed
suicide, in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the
Sangamon, some time ago.

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.

No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.

Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!

Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never know;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?

To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.

Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.

Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!

Sweet steel! come forth from out your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!

I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

As you can see, Ol’ Abe had quite the mind. He kept many poems in his office throughout his presidency. Two of his favorite poems are “The Presidential Cow” and “The Soldier’s Thanksgiving”.

I hope you enjoyed his poetry! He would be thrilled if you did.

Gary R. Hess

Gary was born and raised on a small farm in rural Kansas. Today, he is teaching various nationalities English in Southeast Asia. Get his newest poetry eBook here.