What if Abraham Lincoln had committed his observations to verse, shared his private feelings about the remarkable -- and the mundane -- events of his life? What would a freshman state legislator make of life in a frontier capital city? How would a rough man from the West prepare for his political coming out among the sophisticates of New York City? What would he say, after he was dead?
Dan Guillory, professor of English at Millikin University, has been working on a book of poems putatively written in Lincoln's voice and dealing with private as well as public matters. In commemoration of Lincoln's 195th birthday, Guillory agreed to share a selection of his Lincoln poems. Each is preceded by a note that provides a historical context.
Guillory, a long-time Illinois Times contributor and former drama critic, is the author of three books, including Living With Lincoln: Life and Art in the Heartland. He has made presentations on Lincoln at Michigan State University, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Illinois State Historical Society, the Vachel Lindsay Home, and most recently at the "Forever Free" Exhibition at the Decatur Public Library.
Abraham Lincoln lived in New Salem from July 1831 to April 14, 1837. Here he became a student, borrowing books from farmers and from the ill-prepared schoolmaster, Mentor Graham. Here he learned to appreciate the poetry of Robert Burns and Shakespeare under the boozy tutelage of Jack Kelso, who took Lincoln on as his fishing partner. Jack Armstrong challenged the young but strong Lincoln to a wrestling match and lost, thereafter becoming a lifelong friend and supporter. New Salem and its residents, especially young Abraham Lincoln, were all discovering the pleasures of potentiality.
New Salem Village, 1833
Smoke licks the clouds and every cedared roof
Finds its pointed place in the blueness
Of October, river birch and shagbark hickory
Dropping color-coded messages everywhere.
Old Jack Kelso is sober this morning: he savors
The first frost as Jack Armstrong eats side meat and hominy
Mentor Graham, hair a-flutter, lugs the new-bound
Leather books he can hardly teach --
But we all reach, trying to be better
Or even just as good
As everything so abundantly here:
Coneflowers ringed in frost,
The mirrored panels of daylight
Letting me step out of the Old Life
And into the New.
With only the equivalent of a third-grade education, Lincoln the autodidact taught himself geometry and trigonometry in order to become a surveyor, a profession he practiced successfully from 1834 to 1836, while officially residing in New Salem and spending part of the year in Vandalia. He probably relied on Robert Gibson's A Treatise on Practical Surveying (1803), one of the basic handbooks of the day. Lincoln platted the nearby town of Petersburg, across the Sangamon River as well as the village of New Boston in Mercer County.
Surveying, August 1834
My sweet-ribbed prairie is breaking its back
In this August heat, bellowed into tunnels of air,
Cracked open into tents of light, apertures
And spaces neatly receiving
Carpentered cedar-shakes, ridgepoles,
Corn cribs and the waggling Bluestem,
Everything given a proper place in the Ether.
I sit in the shadows, searching for pain
While I dream of dreaming -- sine this,
Cosine that -- my long hard heart is pinched
Into place. I have plotted every inch:
The seen / the unseen. Compass, rod,
And chain, a boundary line of birds
Stretching link by link over the splintered
Creek while the same sun cools down, slower
And slower in the unbounded kiln of the Prairie.
Vandalia, Illinois' first state capital, was Lincoln's political nurse. He served as a state legislator from Jan. 6, 1834 until the state capital was moved to Springfield on Dec. 9, 1839, largely at the instigation of Lincoln and the famous "Long Nine" legislators of Sangamon County. Vandalia was truly a rough-and-tumble venue, like most Illinois towns of the 1830s, but Lincoln learned firsthand the seamy and celestial sides of state politics. When he was in town, Lincoln usually lodged at the Charter Hotel, a rough, two-story wooden building across from the Capitol building.
Lincoln in Vandalia, December 1835
Sluices of mud, green gashes
Of hogshit and hard boiled shirtings
Frozen on the line. The empty sleeves
Wave as I make way upon the ice.
This town needs a decent house
Of Indecency, a snake-oil merchant
And a bookseller with Eastern books to hand.
City fathers pay a wolf bounty here --
Fifty cents for a small pelt
Dollar for a large
That buys you four nights in a cheap hotel.
Now I sympathize with the Illinois Wolf
Giving up his hide
So some scoundrel can get a good night's sleep.
The Lincoln family lived at Eighth and Jackson from May 1, 1844 to Feb. 10, 1861. On June 16, 1887 Robert Todd Lincoln gave the Lincoln Home to the State of Illinois, which restored the home in 1955 and gave it to the National Park Service on Sept. 1, 1971. More restoration work occurred between 1986-1988, and on June 16, 1988, the home was rededicated. Here Lincoln did a prodigious amount of reading -- often to Mary's dismay -- and honed his skills as a self-taught rhetorician. In August 1846, while still living in this house, Lincoln defeated Methodist preacher Peter Cartwright, a Democrat, and won a seat in Congress.
Backporch, Eighth & Jackson -- August 1846
The sky, suddenly grown verbal,
Murmurs in parables:
Some cloudy constructions,
Certain inflections of indigo and pearl-gray --
An outsider trying to speak the Language,
A syntax of rain and heat,
A bad marriage of grammar and thought.
And, Yes, I know whereof I speak.
Gen. Richard Oglesby arrived in Washington on the afternoon of April 14, 1865, but he was too tired from his train journey to accompany the Lincolns to the performance of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre. After the President was shot by John Wilkes Booth, his wounded body was moved directly across the street to the residence of William Petersen. Richard Oglesby (later the only three-time governor of the State of Illinois) was at the bedside throughout the nightand was still holding Lincoln's hand when the President died at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.
Contents of My Pockets--April 14, 1865
Never was my favorite, Ford's Theatre --
And what little I remember of the comedy
Has collected like mush around that bullet
Lodged theatrically in the whorls of my brain.
Oh, this is not the first time! Please count
The bullet holes in my stovepipe hat . . .
After all, I was an easy target, a too tall
Man on an undersized horse.
And I so wanted to join the Honored Dead:
Every night I walked to the War Department,
Reading the telegrams, the body count --
Balls Bluff, Shiloh, Gettysburg, Antietam.
Future historians, do take note:
I carried a pair of reading spectacles,
Some Confederate Dix banknotes
(Where do you think we got Dixie?)
And some favorable newspaper clippings --
My vanity required a few nice words occasionally.
And Bill Petersen was ever so kind, how neighborly
Of him to offer that narrow house across the street.
Try to comfort Mother, she grieves so easily.
If only Oglesby had been there, maybe, maybe.
But he's holding my hand now, whispering into my wound
As the windows brighten on a perfect April morning . . .
© Dan Guillory 2004
Dan Guillory will be reading these and other Lincoln Poems at the Decatur Public Library at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 16.