LINCOLN, Abraham. Autograph letter signed ("A. Lincoln") to Andrew Johnston ("Friend Johnston"), Fremont, Illinois, 18 April 1846. 3½ pages, 4to (9¾ x 7¾ in.), tiny chip from blank margin of first leaf, otherwise in superb condition.
LINCOLN'S POETRY, AFTER A VISIT TO "MY CHILDHOOD HOME": "...SO MEMORY WILL HALLOW ALL WE'VE KNOWN, BUT KNOW NO MORE..."
A unique and extremely important letter containing the most revealing of the very few poetical efforts of the future president, who had just celebrated his 36th birthday. While he campaigned for Henry Clay in the 1844 elections, the rising young Springfield attorney made a nostalgic return visit to the frontier settlement on Pigeon Creek, near Gentryville, Indiana, where his family had moved in 1816 when Abraham was about seven years old. Two years later, the death of his mother, Nancy Hanks Lincoln at age 36 was a devastating loss to the boy, and, as one biographer notes, "it is tempting to trace his subsequent moodiness, his melancholy, and his occasional bouts of depression to this cause, but the connections are not clear..." (D.H. Donald, Lincoln, p.27). Lincoln briefly attended a local school and, at age 18, suffered another loss when his older sister Sarah Grigsby died in childbirth. Lincoln and his family remained at the Pigeon Creek settlement until 1830, then, when Lincoln was 21, they moved westward to a cabin on the Sangamon River near Decatur. His 1844 visit was Lincoln's first return to his former home, and predictably, the experience awakened a host of long-forgotten memories of his childhood and "things decayed, and loved ones lost." These proved so compelling that Lincoln endeavored to express them in verse and composed a rambling poem in three distinct sections (or cantos, as Lincoln called them). His poem, amateurish in some respects, is extremely revealing. Certain lines ("...every sound appears a knell And every spot a grave...") and the final stanza in particular vividly express the underlying strain of fatalism that strongly colored Lincoln's emotional life.
Here, two years after the visit, Lincoln writes his friend Johnston, an attorney with literary inclinations and editor of a local paper, the Quincy Whig. Lincoln comments on a parody of Poe's "The Raven" (featuring a pole-cat), denies authorship of another set of verses ("Mortality" by William Knox, Lincoln's favorite poem), and appends his own poem "My Childhood's home I see again," after describing the circumstances under which it was written: "Your letter...was received in due course, and also the paper [newspaper] with the parody. It is true, as suggested it might be, that I have never seen Poe's 'Raven'; and I very well know that a parody is almost entirely dependent for its interest upon the readers acquaintance with the original. Still, there is enough in the pole cat, self-considered, to afford one several hearty laughs. I think four or five of the last stanzas are decidedly funny..."
"...I think you ask me who is the author of the piece I sent you; and that you ask, as to indicate a slight suspicion that I myself am the author. Beyond all question, I am not the author; I would give all I am worth, and go into debt, to be able to write such a fine piece as I think that is. Neither do I know who is the author [William Knox, a Scots poet]. I met it in a straggling form in a newspaper last summer; and I remember to have seen it once before, about fifteen years before; and this is all I know about it."
"The piece of poetry of my own which I alluded to, I was led to write under the following circumstances. In the fall of 1844, thinking I might aid some to carry the state of Indiana for Mr. [Henry] Clay, I went into the neighborhood of 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 was certainly poetry though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question. When I got to writing, the change of subject divides the thing into four little divisions or cantos, the first of which I send you, now, and may send the others hereafter. Yours truly A Lincoln." Beneath his signature, Lincoln has neatly penned his poem:
My child-hood's home I see again
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory clouds my brain
There's pleasure in it too.
O memory! thou mid-way world
'Twixt earth and Paradise,
When things decayed, and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,
And freed from all that's earthly vile,
See 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 play-mates loved so well.
Where many were, how 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 lone survivors tell
How naught 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."
Interestingly, in the only other autograph manuscript of the poem, in the Lincoln papers at the Library of Congress (conjecturally dated 1846), the second line of stanza two reads "And gladden with the view," instead of "And sadden with the view" (see Basler 1:367-370). In that version, "My Childhood's Home" constitutes the first section or canto of 24 stanzas (and these appear to break off at the end). Eventually, Lincoln gave Johnston his permission to publish the present poem under the title "Reflection," and another, "The Bear Hunt," under the collective title "The Return." (A third canto, "The Maniac," describing an unfortunate youth's sudden descent into madness, Johnston may have deemed unsuitable for his paper's readers). In his letter to Johnston of 25 February 1847, agreeing to publication, Lincoln modestly confessed that he was "not at all displeased" at the prospect of his "poetry, or doggerel, or whatever else it may be called" appearing in print. But, he insisted, the poetry must be published anonymously, since "I have not sufficient hope of the verses attracting any favorable notice, to tempt me to risk being ridiculed for having written them" (that letter to Johnston sold at Christie's, 8 June 1990, lot 104, $130,000).
Published in Basler, 1:376-379.
Provenance: Philip D. Sang (sale, Sotheby Parke Bernet, 26 April 1978, lot 178).