Friday, April 18, 2008

My Childhood's Home

Lincoln Boyhood, Indiana

Most people knew Abraham Lincoln liked poetry. He was more than willing to recite a poem for anyone who cared to listen. That is, as long as the poem was written by someone else.

He committed long passages written by Shakespeare and Byron to memory. However, his favorite poem, an obscure piece by William Knox titled, “Mortality,” usually made a deep impression upon his audience. On many occasions, people asked Lincoln if he had actually written the piece.

“Beyond all question, I am not the author,” Lincoln replied. “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”

Few of Lincoln’s contemporaries knew he wrote verses of his own; he did not share his poetry.

April 18, 1846 was an exception. Lincoln had been corresponding with Andrew Johnston, a Quincy newspaper editor with a fine literary reputation. Lincoln told the editor that he had written a series of poems. He explained what inspired him:

In the fall of 1844, thinking I might aid some to carry the State of Indiana for Mr. Clay, I went into the neighborhood in that State in which I was raised, where my mother and only sister were buried, and from which I had been absent about fifteen years. That part of the country is, within itself, as unpoetical as any spot of 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. When I got to writing, the change of subjects divided the thing into four little divisions or cantos, the first only of which I send you now and may send the others hereafter.

Lincoln enclosed the following poem, known as “My Childhood’s Home,” in his letter to Johnston. The editor was impressed. He asked Lincoln if he could publish the piece in his newspaper.

Lincoln gave his consent, but told the editor to publish it anonymously. "I have not suffficient hope of the verses attracting any favorable notice to tempt me to risk being ridiculed for having written them," Lincoln explained.

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 nought 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.[1]


[1] A second canto was sent in Lincoln's letter of September 6, 1846. Both cantos were published in the Quincy Whig, May 5, 1847. See letter of February 25, 1847, infra.

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