To the metaphor-minded contemporaries of Lincoln, each leaf on a tree was like a poem in a book, or a leaf out of life. The sentimentally attuned wrote booklets of poems with such titles as Leaves from the Battlefield of Gettysburg … and National Poems (by Mrs. E. A. Souder) or The Last Leaf (by Oliver Wendell Holmes). Most famously, Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman preceded his eye- and pen-work on Lincoln’s death and life.
Hundreds of poems about Lincoln are, in part, a hidden collection at the ALPLM as well as other libraries. Many of them are not conventionally sentimental. One just donated, from the journal of a 3rd sergeant in the 3rd Iowa Infantry, is called “Uncle Sam’s Mule: By A played out Warrior.” This “sojer” bemoans his fate at the hands of the army recruiter:
To disfigure me thus like a base malefactor?
The scribbler was William C. Newlon, and his sense of humor about the mud and “his body, by welting was red, white, and blue!” was perhaps more typical than not – though Newlon did suffer a post-battle amputation.
What chiefly emerged from Lincoln’s career was broken-hearted despondency. His assassination inspired large broadsides with original verse about his greatness, or the devilishness of his cowardly slayer; it inspired poems short or long that were printed in newspapers and magazines across the country; it inspired homespun sorrow now found in scrapbooks. Some of this tide of sorrow, and in later years the commemoration, was catalogued by Governor Henry Horner, namesake of the Lincoln Collection at the ALPLM. Born in 1878, later an attorney, judge, and politician, Horner had an eye for books and an ear for those who spoke of Lincoln in rhyme. More than a thousand poems did he clip or transcribe, and his 16 neat, indexed binders of them are open for all to examine.
Verse about public affairs had its heyday, by coincidence, in the years around Lincoln’s Centennial. It has since greatly fallen away, yet his Bicentennial inspired some to dedicate themselves anew to recording their thoughts about him and his legacy, in a dozen printed collections that have found their way to the ALPLM, added to which are that host of poetic lyrics set to music. This (not set to music, but fitted for it) is by Michael Meng, a Californian:
The gist of my argument with Judge Douglas,
Is simply that,
Lincoln knew that speech can be poetic, whether lineated as verse or not. During dark hours of the war in 1862, he read Holmes’s “The Last Leaf”:
And if I should live to be
The last leaf upon the tree
In the spring. –
Let them smile, as I do now,
At the old forsaken bough
Where I cling.
The Bicentennial will not, I predict, mark a new birth of public interest in poetry, even about Lincoln. But for people who feel that all of the speeches, all of the memoirs, all of the analyses of the legal career or the war or the assassination have tapped the potential sources dry, ponder the unrippled waters of the hundreds of poetic documents, most of them rarely or never read, that turn over the shining leaf of Lincoln’s life and put it into verse.