Saturday, August 20, 2005

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

I mentioned the Springfield home of poet Vachel Lindsay. The Lindsay poem with which I'm most familiar, Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight, was written during the First World War, some fifty years after Lincoln's death.

The poem has always been a favorite of mine and it comes to life when you visit Springfield.

It portrays Lincoln walking the familiar haunts of his adopted hometown, roused from the sleep of death on the Springfield hill where he is buried, awakened by war, injustice, and the promise of peace.

The poem does more than evoke the image of the Springfield Lincoln, who when not riding the Eighth Judicial Circuit as a trial lawyer, walked from his offices to his home, stopping often to talk with people and play with children.

It also suggests images of an earlier Lincoln, the young man in New Salem, bent on improving himself and learning the law, voraciously reading as he walked on his errands, perhaps delivering the mail, turning a friendly face and giving a greeting to those he passed.

Finally and most directly, it evokes memories of the Presidential Lincoln, shawl wrapped over his shoulders, making his midnight walks to the War Department telegraph office for news from Civil War battlefields, ever burdened by the unfolding national tragedy and his role in it.

Here, in a picture of the compassionate and now deceased Lincoln, is Lindsay's beautiful poem:

It is portentious, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house, pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or by shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat, and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint, great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:--as in times before!
And we who toss or lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come:--the shining hope of Europe free:
The league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

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