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Twelve ways of looking at Abraham Lincoln


The enduring image of the rail-splitter - ILLUSTRATION COURTESY OF LIBRARY OF CONGRESS

I. Abraham Lincoln: savior, martyr, saint. Julia Ward Howe, author of "Battle Hymn of the Republic," echoes the Christian nativity scene in "Through the Dim Pageant of the Years": "A cabin of the western wild/ Shelters in sleep a new-born child."

II. Lincoln's name would become sentimentally synonymous with American gumption. Nancy Byrd Turner and Margaret E. Bruner wrote nearly identical poems about Lincoln's hardscrabble early life, as a "quiet, awkward, earnest lad" deprived of books and toys.

III. At age 22, long before he became the Great Emancipator, Lincoln left his family and got work ferrying goods from New Salem to New Orleans. The scene joins Langston Hughes' pantheon of great rivers in "The Negro Speaks of Rivers": "I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln/ went down to New Orleans[.]"

IV. "Manic-depressive Lincoln, national hero!" begins Delmore Schwartz's "Lincoln." Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (a 2005 book by Joshua Wolf Shenk) argues that he was clinically depressed and took refuge in poetry, as "The Suicide's Soliloquy" (which may not have been written by Lincoln) might attest.

V. "My Childhood-Home I See Again" is a poem that Lincoln certainly wrote: He mailed it to Andrew Johnson. He seemed aware that his myth was overtaking him, even in life: "I range the fields with pensive tread/ And pace the hollow rooms,/ And feel (companion of the dead)/ I'm living in the tombs."

VI. Some embattled scholars claim that Lincoln was secretly homosexual. Kevin Killian's poem "Story of Lincoln," written from the perspective of Lincoln's speculative lover Joshua Speed, seems to simultaneously deny and affirm the claim in a passionate, sometimes lurid, but persistently ambiguous soliloquy.

VII. The ultimate inscrutability of a figure as outsized as Lincoln is a recurring theme in writing about him. Carl Sandburg won a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of Lincoln, and also tested his impenetrability in verse: "Lincoln?/ He was a mystery in smoke and flags/ saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags/ yes to the paradoxes of democracy[.]"

VIII. After Lincoln's assassination, Walt Whitman composed the breathless, deathless elegy "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd." Lilacs bloom in April, the same month Lincoln died, and Whitman lays a sprig on Lincoln's casket, hope and hopelessness together.

IX. Ever prolix, Whitman wrote another elegy for Lincoln, the title of which entered pop culture by way of the movie Dead Poets Society. "O Captain! My Captain!" is a work of devotion, and of despair: No longer does the ship of democracy have a firm hand on its rudder.

X. In "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)," Springfield native Vachel Lindsay imagines the late president as a restless ghost, who "lingers where his children used to play," contemplating a murderous world where "all his hours of travail here for men/ Seem yet in vain."

XI. In the ninth canto of Canto General, Pablo Neruda embodies Lincoln as "the woodcutter," a symbol of change and honest labor. Neruda admires the U.S. but worries over its path: "Your warrior's face is not handsome." Like Whitman and Lindsay, he perceives a moral gap left uninhabited after Lincoln's death.

XII. Just like Lindsay's ghost-Lincoln, Brenda Coultas uneasily ponders the man's legacy in The Marvelous Bones of Time. The book's first poem, "The Abolition Journal," finds Coultas peering across the Mason-Dixon Line into Lincoln's home state of Kentucky, and discovering that racism by no means died with slavery.

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