All of his life Abraham Lincoln enjoyed poetry and would occasionally compose poetry. In the fall of 1844 he was campaigning for Henry Clay in Clay’s unsuccessful run for the Presidency in southern Indiana and visited the region where he lived as a boy. He told a friend that the terrain was the most unpoetic imaginable, but moved by nostalgia he set pen to paper:
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-tones 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.
But here’s an object more of dread
Than ought the grave contains–
A human form with reason fled,
While wretched life remains.
Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright,
A fortune-favored child–
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
A haggard mad-man wild.
Poor Matthew! I have ne’er forgot,
When first, with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
And mother strove to kill;
When terror spread, and neighbors ran,
Your dange’rous strength to bind;
And soon, a howling crazy man
Your limbs were fast confined.
How then you strove and shrieked aloud,
Your bones and sinews bared;
And fiendish on the gazing crowd,
With burning eye-balls glared–
And begged, and swore, and wept and prayed
With maniac laught[ter?] joined–
How fearful were those signs displayed
By pangs that killed thy mind!
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.
To drink it’s strains, I’ve stole away,
All stealthily and still,
Ere yet the rising God of day
Had streaked the Eastern hill.
Air held his breath; trees, with the spell,
Seemed sorrowing angels round,
Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell
Upon the listening ground.
But this is past; and nought remains,
That raised thee o’er the brute.
Thy piercing shrieks, and soothing strains,
Are like, forever mute.
Now fare thee well–more thou the cause,
Than subject now of woe.
All mental pangs, by time’s kind laws,
Hast lost the power to know.
O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
That keepst the world in fear;
Why dost thos tear more blest ones hence,
And leave him ling’ring here?
Part II of the poem concerns Mathew Gentry, a schoolmate of Lincoln, three years older than him, who went insane at 19. It says something about the profound melancholia that afflicted Lincoln all his life, that this sad occurrence looms large in his memory. As Lincoln noted, he told jokes in order to avoid weeping. The poem also demonstrates that while Lincoln was a master of prose, he was wise to never give up his day job when it came to poetry.