Abraham Lincoln's "My Childhood Home I See Again"
Introduction and Text of "My Childhood Home I See Again"
The Great Emancipator, who was renowned for his poetic renderings in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, also scribbled some fine verse in addition to his political tracts. The sixteenth president did, in fact, leave a body of work that does indeed qualify as poetry.
Abraham Lincoln once said he would give anything, even incur debt to be able to write poetry. His favorite poem was "Mortality" by William Knox. One of Lincoln's most noted poems describes a visit to his childhood home and is titled "My Childhood Home I See Again." This poem is divided into two cantos; the first canto consists of ten stanzas, and the second canto consists of thirteen stanzas. Each stanza has the rime scheme, ABAB.
(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")
My Childhood Home I See Again
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?
Reading of Lincoln's "My Childhood Home I See Again"
President Lincoln loved poetry. The Great Emancipator, renowned for his poetic writings in the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address, did not restrict his scribbling to political tracts.
Canto 1: Sad Memories
The first canto opens with the speaker reporting that he is visiting his childhood home. He becomes sad as poignant memories flood his mind. But he also finds that "There's pleasure in it too."
In the second stanza, the speaker muses about the nature of memory, portraying it as a "midway world / 'Twixt earth and paradise." But in this earthly paradise, "things decayed and loved ones lost / In dreamy shadows rise."
Stanzas three through five continue to muse about the nature of memory, how it transforms scenes into "some enchanted isle, / All bathed in liquid light." And memory will "hallow all / We've known, but know no more."
In stanzas six through ten, the speaker reports that he has been away from the childhood home for twenty years, that now there are fewer of his former friends remaining, and the ones left have "changed as time has sped." And half of them have died, while many others went from "Young childhood grown to strong manhood gray."
The surviving friends inform him about the deaths of their former friends, and the speaker then walks through the fields thinking as he paces what seem to be "hollow rooms," and the situation renders him so melancholy that thinks he is "living in the tombs."
Canto 2: Drama of a Young Man
The speaker begins Canto 2 by comparing the sadness of the grave to the sadness of one whose mind is gone while his body still lives on: "But here's an object more of dread / Than ought the grave contains / A human form with reason fled, / While wretched life remains."
The speaker is dramatizing the sorrowful event of young man he knew, named Matthew Gentry. Matthew was a bright young man, son of a wealthy family, but at age nineteen he unaccountably went mad: "Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright, / A fortune-favored child / Now locked for aye, in mental night, / A haggard mad- man wild."
The rest of the canto presents a portrayal of poor Matthew's mad ravings, how he hurt himself, fought with father, and nearly killed his mother. The speaker muses and speculates as he reports each disturbing scene.
The final stanza presents the speaker personifying and addressing Death, inquiring of Death, why he takes the healthy-minded and leaves this mentally defective lingering: "O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince, / That keepst the world in fear; / Why dost thou tear more blest ones hence, / And leave him ling'ring here?"
Lincoln and Poetry
Abraham Lincoln loved poetry, so it is little wonder that he would try his hand at it. He doubted that he could ever be a poet, but he had the temperament and skill with words that leaves little doubt that his scribbling is the stuff of poetry.
© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes