A couple of months ago, I was asked to speak at Deerfield Academy about Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman. The subject of the Civil War, during this 150th anniversary year, came up repeatedly, most pointedly in the contrast between Whitman’s open engagement with the war, both in the poems of Drum-Taps and in his nursing of wounded soldiers in Washington, and Dickinson’s less explicit response—in poems that seem, however cryptically, to register the distant fighting and dying. “War feels to me an oblique place,” she wrote her friend Thomas Wentworth Higginson, who was leading an African-American regiment in Florida. Inevitably, we talked about Whitman’s elegies for Lincoln: the stilted allegory “O Captain! My Captain!” (which reads as though protean Whitman was trying to squeeze himself into Dickinson’s tight meters) and the grand and mysterious masterpiece “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”
One bright student raised his hand and asked, “Would you say that Lincoln was just a failed poet?” Well, no, I wouldn’t say that, I replied. In fact, I found myself saying instead that Lincoln was the third of the great American poets of the nineteenth century. Based on his three greatest speeches alone—his Gothic “House Divided” speech, the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural—Lincoln, for the sheer pressure of his language and the surprising new uses he found for the rhythms and buried eloquence of our ordinary speech, stands above any American poet of his time other than Dickinson and Whitman.
Lincoln’s greatest poem is the Gettysburg Address. Scholars have teased out its echoes from Thucydides and noted its Biblical grandeur. But I think that beneath its artistry lie the formal skeleton and the verbal machinery of the sonnet. (I should note that there have been attempts to “translate” the address into the traditional 14-line structure of a sonnet.) For Shakespeare, Milton, and Keats, the sonnet provided a small field for exploring the shifting meanings of a few words. It generally had a simple, two-part structure, with a so-called “turn” signaling the seam. The two parts often fused an emotional subject with an analytic treatment, summed up in an epigram at the end.
At this point, someone will want to object that Lincoln’s sonnet is in prose. Well, so it is! But Emerson wrote “Woods: A Prose Sonnet,” in which he asked the woods to give him something new to say, “along with “the tune wherein to say it.” Lincoln finds a new tune for the sonnet in the sinewy prose of the Gettysburg Address. The specific words he “worries” include simple ones like “here,” used nine times, and most beautifully in the contrast between words and deeds: “The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.”
The more elaborate word of course is “dedicate,” used six times, which shifts from abstract (“dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”) to more literal (“to dedicate a portion of” the battlefield). After the great “turn” of the sonnet, which occurs with the reflection “But in a larger sense we can not dedicate…” Lincoln proclaims that “It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here…” Then comes the closing, cinching epigram: “this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” What poet could have said it better?
Also of interest:
- H. L. Mencken, Adlai Stevenson on Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, a previous Reader’s Almanac post
- Lincoln as storyteller: “Remarkable Case of Arrest for Murder,” a previous Story of the Week
- A recent LOA interview with Chrisopher Benfey about Stephen Crane: Complete Poems