The Poetry of Abraham Lincoln


It should sur­prise few to learn that Abra­ham Lin­coln wrote poet­ry. But this fact about his life is dwarfed by those events that defined his polit­i­cal lega­cy, and this is also no sur­prise. Nev­er­the­less, in the midst of the cur­rent Lin­coln revival, the man and the states­man, I think it’s fit­ting to attend to Abra­ham Lin­coln the poet. Cer­tain­ly schol­ars have read his poet­ry in rela­tion to his skill­ful prose and ora­to­ry. But, on its own, this writ­ing gives us insight into the sen­si­tiv­i­ty of Lin­col­n’s less pub­lic modes of expres­sion.

Was he a great poet? Well, it appears that he had at least three phases—the first, a youth­ful one in his teens and ear­ly twen­ties when he pro­duced some sil­ly juvenelia, “a num­ber of crude and satir­i­cal vers­es.” The most pop­u­lar of these is called “Chron­i­cles of Reuben,” a local satire Lin­coln schol­ar Robert Bray describes as “a series of pseu­do-bib­li­cal prose and verse pieces that are, out of their local Indi­ana con­text, so top­i­cal as to be nei­ther fun­ny nor com­pre­hen­si­ble.” The piece, writ­ten in 1828 to avenge him­self upon a rival Indi­ana fam­i­ly, appar­ent­ly had great effect on the neigh­bors, how­ev­er. One of them, Joseph C. Richard­son, claimed that the poem was “remem­bered here in Indi­ana in scraps bet­ter than the Bible.”

We have to cred­it fron­tier oral tra­di­tion for our knowl­edge of some of Lincoln’s more seri­ous poems in his sec­ond phase, after he joined “a Kind of Poet­i­cal Soci­ety” in Illi­nois some­time between 1837–39. One neigh­bor, James Math­e­ny, remem­bered the fol­low­ing world­ly lines from a Lin­coln poem called “On Seduc­tion”:

What­ev­er Spite­ful fools may Say—

Each jeal­ous, rant­i­ng yelper—

No woman ever played the whore

Unless She had a man to help her.

If this is tru­ly a stan­za from Lincoln’s pen, the satirist is still very much in evidence—Swift could have writ­ten these lines—but the self-described “prairie lawyer” has grown philo­soph­i­cal and left the ado­les­cent bound­aries of local feuds and pranks.

His third, most seri­ous phase begins when Lin­coln returned to Indi­ana, after leav­ing Illi­nois briefly in an attempt to help Hen­ry Clay’s failed pres­i­den­tial bid against James Polk. Lin­coln called Indi­ana “as unpo­et­i­cal as any spot of the earth,” and yet it serves as a sub­ject for a poem com­plet­ed in 1846 called “My Child­hood Home I See Again.” (The image above is of the first six stan­zas of this long poem in Lincoln’s hand­writ­ing. Click here to see the remain­ing pages). Here in the first two stan­zas (below), you can see the cut­ting wit of the younger, more con­fi­dent man give way to a kind of wist­ful nos­tal­gia wor­thy of Wordsworth:

My child-hood home I see again,

And glad­den with the view;

And still as mem’ries crowd my brain,

There’s sad­ness in it too–


O mem­o­ry! thou mid-way world

‘Twixt Earth and Par­adise;

Where things decayed, and loved ones lost

In dreamy shad­ows rise–

You can read a com­plete tran­script of the poem here, and the Library of Con­gress has a detailed descrip­tion of the poem’s stages of com­po­si­tion.

Lin­coln-as-poet con­tin­ued in this thought­ful, mature voice in the remain­ing years of his life, though nev­er equal­ing the poet­ic out­put of 1846. Some­what out of char­ac­ter, the final doc­u­ment­ed piece of poet­ry from Lin­coln comes from July 19, 1863. Writ­ten in response to the North’s vic­to­ry in Get­tys­burg, “Verse on Lee’s Inva­sion of the North” is a short piece of dog­ger­el that sees him return­ing to satire, writ­ing in the voice of “Gen. Lee”:

Gen. Lee’s inva­sion of the North writ­ten by him­self—

In eigh­teen six­ty three, with pomp,

and mighty swell,

Me and Jef­f’s Con­fed­er­a­cy, went

forth to sack Phil-del,

The Yan­kees they got arter us, and

giv us par­tic­u­lar hell,

And we skedad­dled back again,

And did­n’t sack Phil-del.

Sure­ly the poem was writ­ten in a hur­ry, and with jubi­lant, tri­umphal glee, but if this is the last we heard from Lin­coln the poet, it might be a shame, though it would not blot out the lit­er­ary skill of poems like “My Child­hood Home I See Again” and oth­ers like “The Bear Hunt” and “To Rosa,” which you can read here.

But there’s more to this sto­ry; in 2004, a his­to­ri­an dis­cov­ered an unsigned poem called “The Sui­cide’s Soliloquy”—published in the August 25, 1838 issue of the Sang­amo Jour­nal, a Spring­field newspaper—and believed the for­mer pres­i­dent to be the poet. In the video above, lis­ten to a moody, dra­mat­ic read­ing of the poem:

It is not known with cer­tain­ty if Lin­coln wrote this poem, but schol­ar­ly con­sen­sus inclines heav­i­ly in that direc­tion, giv­en its styl­is­tic sim­i­lar­i­ty to his oth­er work from this peri­od. “The Sui­cide’s Solil­o­quy” is as pas­sion­ate and mor­bid as any of Edgar Allen Poe’s verse, and betrays Lincoln’s char­ac­ter­is­tic melan­choly in its stormi­est and most Roman­tic guise. NPR has the full poem and the sto­ry of its dis­cov­ery.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Res­ur­rect­ing the Sounds of Abra­ham Lin­coln in Steven Spielberg’s New Biopic

The Last Sur­viv­ing Wit­ness of the Lin­coln Assas­si­na­tion

Louis CK Plays Abra­ham Lin­coln, America’s 16th Pres­i­dent and (Yes) Stand-Up Come­di­an Too

Josh Jones is a writer, edi­tor, and musi­cian based in Wash­ing­ton, DC. Fol­low him @jdmagness

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