Abraham Lincoln was a self-educated man. He once said that he acquired his education “by littles.” The combined total of all the time he spent in school didn’t amount to a year. Still, he became one of our greatest presidents…and I believe some would agree an accomplished writer.
Lincoln gained much of his knowledge through books. He hungered for them when he was young. He read incessantly—beginning with the Bible and Shakespeare. His love of reading didn’t diminish as he grew older.
In his New York Times review of William Lee Miller’s book Lincoln’s Virtues, Eric Foner wrote the following:
During his single term in the House of Representatives, his colleagues considered it humorous that Lincoln spent his spare time poring over books in the Library of Congress. The result of this ”stunning work of self-education” was the ”intellectual power” revealed in Lincoln’s writings and speeches.
Ted Sorenson, a former advisor to John F. Kennedy, said he thought that Abraham Lincoln was not only the greatest American president…but also the best of all presidential speechwriters.
Lincoln was a superb writer. Like Jefferson and Teddy Roosevelt, but few if any other presidents, he could have been a successful writer wholly apart from his political career. He needed no White House speechwriter, as that post is understood today. He wrote his major speeches out by hand, as he did his eloquent letters and other documents. Sometimes he read his draft speeches aloud to others, including members of his cabinet and his two principal secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, and he occasionally received suggestions, particularly at the start of his administration, from his onetime rival for the presidency, Secretary of State William Seward…
…Lincoln’s words, heard by comparatively few, by themselves carried power across time and around the world.
Sorenson added that the triumph of Lincoln’s greatest speech, the Gettysburg Address, didn’t come from rhetorical devices alone. He said Lincoln had “two great qualities infusing his use of those devices. First, he had a poetic literary sensibility. He was aware of the right rhythm and sound. An editor of the Gettysburg Address might say that ‘Eighty-seven years ago’ is shorter. Lincoln wrote instead, ‘Four score and seven years ago.’” In addition, Sorenson noted that Lincoln “had the root of the matter in him. The presidents greatest in speechcraft are almost all the greatest in statecraft also—because speeches are not just words. They present ideas, directions and values, and the best speeches are those that get those right. As Lincoln did.”
And how did Lincoln develop a “poetic literary sensibility?” Most likely from being an enthusiastic reader of poetry. According to the Library of Congress, Lincoln was an avid reader of poetry throughout his life—and as a teenager “began to cultivate an interest in writing poetry.” His oldest surviving poems were said to have been written “when he was between fifteen and seventeen years old, are brief squibs that appear in his arithmetic book.”
Here are two of his early poems:
his hand and pen
he will be good but
god knows When
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
From the Library of Congress:
Lincoln wrote his most serious poetry in 1846. The limited information that exists about their composition comes from Lincoln’s correspondence with Andrew Johnston, a fellow lawyer and Whig politician from Quincy, Illinois. In a letter to Johnston on February 24, 1846, 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.”
The poem Lincoln alluded to is “My Childhood-Home I See Again.” It was completed shortly after Lincoln’s message to Johnston.
In 2010, Robert Pinsky, a former Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (1997-2000), wrote an article for Slate titled Firmness in the Write: Why Abraham Lincoln’s poetry is the real thing. In the article, he discussed Lincoln’s poem My Childhood-Home I See Again.
The United States has had a head of state who was also a great writer. Only Marcus Aurelius can compete with Abraham Lincoln. Like many prose masters, Lincoln was a reader and writer of poetry. His poem “My Childhood-Home I See Again” combines polished but conventional passages in ballad meter with another element, powerfully imagined and turbulent. The poem is worth thinking about in relation to Abraham Lincoln’s mind. It also raises interesting questions about poetry itself—the art’s ability to compound the meanings of words with the force of bodily gestures.
Lincoln included “My Childhood-Home I See Again” in a letter, where he refers to it as “a little canto of what I call poetry.” The more ordinary part of the poem (published by newspapers after the assassination and omitting the more unsettling original passages) begins by describing a return to Lincoln’s childhood home in Indiana after 20 years away. These opening stanzas look back on the early years with an idealizing, though loss-conscious nostalgia, “as distant mountains please the eye.” Then, hearing about how many in the old place have died, he feels he is “living in the tombs.”
The shift from those relatively standard elegiac sentiments begins with “And here’s an object more of dread,” which introduces the story of Matthew Gentry, a childhood schoolmate (three years older) who was, like Lincoln, “a rather bright lad”—as Lincoln calls him in the letter—and, unlike Lincoln, “the son of the rich man of our very poor neighborhood.” At 19, Matthew went violently insane and spent the rest of his life locked up. In his confinement, the crazy man sang, and Lincoln describes himself as drawn to the singing: He “stole away” at night to hear it, “all silently and still.” The song, says the poem, seemed like “the funeral dirge … of reason dead and gone.” Yet it was “sweet” as well as “distant” and “lone”: adjectives that re-enforce the idea of fellow-feeling by Lincoln toward Matthew. The president describes that furtive pleasure in eloquent lines, indelibly simple and mysterious:
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.
Here are the first four stanzas of Lincoln’s poem:
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;
Click here to read the rest of Lincoln’s poem.
Lincoln as Poet (Library of Congress)
Abraham Lincoln (Poetry Foundation)
My Childhood Home I See Again (Poetry Foundation)
Reading 2: Learning By Littles (National Park Service)
A Real Education (Illinois Periodicals Online)
The Education of Abraham Lincoln (New York Times)
Ted Sorensen on Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Words (Smithsonian)