abraham lincoln by John Henry Brown Watercolour on ivory, 1860 Sight: 11.7 × 8.9cm (45⁄8 × 31⁄2 ") Frame: 14.3 × 11.4 × 1.1cm
(55⁄8 × 41⁄2 × 7⁄16 ") National Portrait Gallery,
Smithsonian Institution NPG.75.11
Abraham Lincoln The story goes that Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, bibliophile and poetry lover, bought a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass (1855) and would read it aloud during quiet moments in their Springfield, Illinois offices, Lincoln listening sympathetically and asking for phrases to be repeated. Such a story would be an early link between the poet and his most famous subject and muse. But Lincoln had his own aspirations as a poet. Famously, Lincoln was unschooled but not unlettered: he was a ferociously concentrated autodidact. He knew the Bible and Shakespeare cold (his favourite play was Macbeth) as well as Watt’s hymns and English literature from Bunyan to Thomas Gray. As a young man, he wrote poetry as a way of assimilating and making sense of his own sense of distance from the world around him. Some of that writing expressed the physical hardship of growing up on the frontier where farm families heard ‘the panther scream’. But Lincoln’s own sense of emotional displacement ran through his longest poem, ‘My Childhood Home I See Again’, written in 1846 and modelled on Gray’s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Church Yard’. A retrospective view of the childhood home that Lincoln never really had, it concludes:
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms, And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.
Lincoln’s melancholy was leavened by his appreciation of a good joke or story. During the Civil War, he wrote some goodhumoured, vernacular doggerel about the campaigning. But the 1846 poem offers extraordinary insight into the mind of one of America’s great writers. david c. ward