Tuesday, February 14, 2017

`What You Hear Is a New Voice'

Without peeking online, read the following stanza and make an educated guess as to its author:

“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.”

The speaker is a forthright realist but no stranger to nostalgia. He’s old enough to have a past and to weigh its bitterness and charms. The meter recalls a ballad, which primes us for a story, not a lyrical revelation. Our author knows something and wants to share it. Already he has told us sadness precedes and perhaps follows pleasure, which is how we have come to understand Abraham Lincoln, the melancholy president and poet. That he is a masterful writer of prose is old news. In “Lincoln, the Literary Genius” (later retitled “Lincoln the Writer”), originally published in The Saturday Evening Post in 1959 for the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, Jacques Barzun reminds us:

“The qualities of Lincoln's literary art--precision, vernacular ease, rhythmical virtuosity, and elegance—may at a century’s remove seem alien to our tastes. Certainly we vehemently promote their opposites: our sensibility cherishes the indistinct. Yet if we consider one continuing strain in our tradition, we cannot without perverseness question the relevance to the present generation of Lincoln’s literary art. His example, plainly, helped to break the monopoly of the dealers in literary plush.”

“My Childhood Home I See Again” is hardly plush-free, but its verses, if more conventional than Lincoln’s prose, are moving and revealing of the man. The editors of the Collected Works (nine volumes, Rutgers University Press, 1953-1955) date the completion of the poem to Feb. 25, 1846. Two years earlier, Lincoln had campaigned in southwestern Indiana for the Whig presidential candidate Henry Clay. Lincoln hadn’t visited his childhood home, where his mother and sister were buried, in fifteen years. One day before finishing the poem, Lincoln sent a copy of his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Mortality,” to Andrew Johnston, a Quincy, Ill., attorney. At Lincoln’s request, in May 1847, Johnston anonymously published several of Lincoln’s poems, including the first two cantos of “My Childhood Home I See Again,” in the Quincy Whig.

In a letter to Johnston, Lincoln described southern Indiana “as unpoetical as any spot on the earth; but still seeing it and its objects and inhabitants aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry; though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question.” Lincoln devotes the second part of his poem to a pure “murder ballad” story. He was present when a childhood friend, Matthew Gentry, tried to murder his parents. He was judged insane and confined to an institution. Lincoln tells Johnston that when he visited his childhood home in 1844, Gentry “was still lingering in this wretched condition.” Lincoln, whose favorite poets were Shakespeare, Pope, Burns and Byron, crafts a self-revealing melodrama:

“And when at length, tho’ drear and long,
Time smoothed thy fiercer woes,
How plaintively thy mournful song
Upon the still night rose.

“I’ve heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
Far distant, sweet, and lone--
The funeral dirge, it ever seemed
Of reason dead and gone.”

Like Dr. Johnson, Lincoln lived in fear of madness. The book to read on this subject is Joshua Wolf Shenk’s Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (2005). Lincoln never completed his poems. He wrote two additional stanzas, perhaps the start of a third canto, and then abandoned it:

“And now away to seek some scene
Less painful than the last—
With less of horror mingled in
The present and the past.

“The very spot where grew the bread
That formed my bones, I see.
How strange, old field, on thee to tread,
And feel I’m part of thee!”

The final stanza reads like a thrown-together, obligatory wrap-up. It’s a shame but Lincoln had more pressing matters. Barzun suggests we read Lincoln as though he were a new writer unfamiliar to us: 

“Pretend that you know none of the persons and incidents, nothing of the way the story embedded in these pages comes out. Your aim is to see a life unfold and to descry the character of the man in his own words, written, most of them, not to be published, but to be privately read and felt. If you are at all sensitive to words and to the breath that blows through them, you will soon be aware that what you hear is a new voice.”  

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