A poem by Abraham Lincoln

Last week I posted a poem written by Queen Elizabeth; this week is another post from an historical leader that most people don’t know wrote poetry. The following poem was written by President Abraham Lincoln (before he became president, though: he wrote it 1844 when he passed through his boyhood home while campaigning for Henry Clay. While he said the place was as un-poetical as ever there was, it nevertheless stirred him such to write the following lines:

My Childhood’s Home I See Again
by Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

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-notes 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 naught 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.

Those of you familiar with English meter might recognize this to be written in ballad form: it is in iambic meter (alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables), and alternates between lines of 4 beats and lines of 3 beats.  But even someone totally unfamiliar with English meter will still feel the rhythm of the poem manifest itself as they read. Lincoln no doubt felt it quite loudly as he crafted the poem; and a scan of the poem’s beats will reveal a very regular metrical construction.

But it seems there is at least one line that got forced into the meter, instead of creating it naturally. Ideally, the words in a poem can be read naturally, and the meter presents itself to our ears because the master poet has placed the words in just the right order for a natural reading to generate the poem’s music. But sometimes a writer, who already has the music in mind, can inadvertently superimpose that rhythm upon the normal pronunciation of the words. When this happens, a natural reading of the words will cause a disruption to the meter; but the disruption may be easily missed if the writer is so caught up in the rhythm that they alter the pronunciation or stressing of words without realizing it.

In Lincoln’s poem. the rhythm is a regular ~ / ~ / ~ /, and we get so used to hearing that, we expect each line to continue in the same way. But how would we really read the line “As leaving some grand waterfall,” if we came across it in prose? Well, we tend to emphasize content words (like nouns, verbs, and descriptive adjectives), and de-emphasis function words (like articles, prepositions, and conjunctions). “As leaving some grand waterfall” would probably scan ~ / ~ ~ / / ~ ~ (or ~ / ~ ~ / / ~ /). But in this poem, it comes out instead as “As leaving some grand waterfall” ( ~ / ~ / ~ / ~ /). A little less natural.

As I said last week, this is not to nit-pick on someone else’s work, but just to draw prospective writers’ attentions to the process and production of metrical poetry. We see this here, and it does NOT have to diminish our appreciation for this poem; but it can spur us on to examine our own productions, and consider if there is anything in our own works we may want to improve. In my poetry, do I want to emphasize a word like “some?” Well, some of the time, yes; but only when appropriate (for example, if I want to contrast with “all”).

This lesson is particularly worth noting, as over-regularization of meter was one of the things that prompted people to question whether or not English poetry should be written in meter at all. For they noted that English meter sounded artificial, and impeded the natural emotion of a piece of art–and certainly bad meter can do just that. Had Lincoln reproduced this error 10 or 20 other times in the poem, we would be quite dissatisfied with it, and call it a bad poem. Fortunately, he makes this slip only once, and it is not so noticeable. Now, how noticeable are the mistakes in our own works?

I don’t [yet] have any other poetry by Lincoln on the site, but I do have one about Lincoln, by Walt Whitman.

Meanwhile, if you want to check out some contemporary poetry in English meter (yes some of us still write in English meter, while the rest of the English world is busy with free verse), you can check out some samples here (or better yet, get a whole book on your Amazon Kindle for only 99 cents).

And remember to leave a comment if you find an article on this site helpful to your own writing (or maybe let one of your writer friends know about the site!).

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One response

  1. […] meter may feel familiar to you: it is the same meter used by Abraham Lincoln in the poem of his we looked at last week. We may scan it like […]

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