Today, for the three day weekend, I offer two works of poetry. One is a short poem about Abraham Lincoln by Vachel Lindsay. The other is a longer poem by Abraham Lincoln that he gave as his 2nd Inaugural Address, in March of 1865, a few weeks before he died. He didn’t call it a poem, of course. Maybe you won’t either. But if you don’t think it’s poetry, I’d like to hear why. For me, it does all that poetry does, and can do.
First, Vachel Lindsay’s “Lincoln”:
Would I might rouse the Lincoln in you all,
That which is gendered in the wilderness
From lonely prairies and God’s tenderness.
Imperial soul, star of a weedy stream,
Born where the ghosts of buffaloes still dream,
Whose spirit hoof-beats storm above his grave,
Above that breast of earth and prairie-fire—
Fire that freed the slave.
I chose this today largely because it opens with just what I would say to you, to any of you, to all Americans. Would that we could raise the Lincolns in ourselves this year, not because he was a saint or a demi-god or a man who could do no wrong, but because more than maybe any other American before or since, Lincoln perceived who we were and who we could be, and lit the pathway there. Lincoln, as Lindsay interprets him, is about frontier and fire, about optimism and energy. Lincoln, despite his many faults, managed to tell America more about itself than it had ever known—he saw in the founders’ documents a call to a nobler destiny than they had forged. And he said it to us in the simplest possible language, so that even when his words have grown tired with overquotation and overapplication they still claw their way through to us and shake us awake to ourselves. In the passage below, I hope that happens for you. Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address:
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war–seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
I think it will take a whole post to say why I think this is perhaps the best speech he ever gave (better than the more famous Gettysburg Address), and why it may be the best speech ever given, especially if I consider how much he gets done in how few words (what you see above is the entirety of his remarks). So I will try to write that post on Monday, on Presidents’ Day, and I hope that between now and then a few of you will offer your reflections here in the comments.