A Presidential Poem

February 16, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT

ROBERT PINSKY, Poet Laureate: Part of Abraham Lincoln’s greatness is that he was a great writer–pretty unusual in a head of state. He was a great prose writer, but he also did sometimes write poetry. This poem, “My Childhood Home I See Again,” is in a way on a characteristic Washington subject; it’s a poem of nostalgia for Lincoln’s home in Illinois. Halfway through, the poem becomes more complicated than that. Here’s how it begins:

My Childhood Home I See Again

My childhood home I see again, And gladden with the view; And still, as memories crowd my brain, There’s sadness 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 gross or vile, Seem hallowed, pure, and bright, Like scenes in some enchanted isle All bathed in liquid light.

ROBERT PINSKY: He recalls:

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.

hear the lone 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 (companions of the dead) I’m living in the tombs.

ROBERT PINSKY: That much of the poem was published in newspapers after Lincoln’s assassination, and that much of the poem is a touching, conventional poem of nostalgia and elegy. Another reason that Lincoln is great in our imagination is that he was an enigmatic and gloomy man. And there’s more of the poem. After recalling the dead, he recalls a boy who became insane. The poem continues:

And here’s an object more of dread Than ought the grave contains– A human form with reason fled, While wretched life remains.

Poor Matthew! One of genius bright, A fortune-favored child– Now locked forever, in mental night, A haggard mad-man wild.

ROBERT PINSKY: He recalls hearing the singing of the mad child:

And when at length, tho’ drear and long, Time smoothed your fiercer woes, How plaintively your mournful song Upon the still night rose.

I’ve heard it often, as if I dreamed, Far distant, sweet, and lone– The funeral dirge, it ever seemed Of reason dead and gone.

ROBERT PINSKY: The poem concludes:

And now away to seek some scene less painful Than the last, With less of horror mingled in the present And the past, The very spot where grew the bread That formed my bones, I see, How strange, old field, on thee to tread and feel I’m part of thee.

ROBERT PINSKY: To end on the words, “I’m part of thee” is to make us feel a strange empathy toward the man who died in darkness.