Home  »  Volume XVII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART II  »  § 15. Possible Influence of Seward

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XXII. Lincoln

§ 15. Possible Influence of Seward

And now the most interesting of the literary questions concerning Lincoln presents itself. It is to be borne in mind that he was essentially non-rhetorical. He towers out of the literary murk of his day through his freedom from rhetoric. And yet, pernicious as it is, mere rhetoricity has its base in genuine artistic impulse. It is art perverted and made unreal, just as sentimentality is sentiment perverted and made unreal. And just as the vision of conduct which sentimentality perceives—and spoils—is an essential to noble living, so the vision of word-use which rhetoric perceives and spoils is essential to literature. Hitherto Lincoln had been ultra-sensitive to the spoiling done by rhetoricality. Had he been duly sensitive to the vision which the word-jobbers of his day had degraded to their own measure? It may be fairly doubted. But hereafter, in the literary richness of the final manner, no one can doubt the fulness and the range of his vision as an imaginative artificer in words. Had any new influence, purely literary entered into his life? One hesitates to say, and yet there is the following to consider. Lincoln submitted his First Inaugural to Seward. Several of Seward’s criticisms he accepted. But Seward, never doubting that he was worth a dozen of the President in a literary way, did not confine himself to criticism. He graciously submitted a wholly new paragraph which Mr. Lincoln might, if he cared to, use as peroration. It read:

  • I close. We are not, we must not be, aliens or enemies, but fellow countrymen and brethren. Although passion has strained our bonds of affection too hardly, they must not, I am sure they will not, be broken. The mystic chords which, proceeding from so many battlefields and so many patriotic graves, pass through all the hearts and all hearths in this broad continent of ours, will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation.
  • One of the most precious pages in the sealed story of Lincoln’s inner life would contain his reflections as he pondered this paragraph. Deeply as he knew the hearts of men, here—in spite of its lack of weight—was something that hitherto he had not been able to use. The power of it in affecting men he must have understood. If it could be brought within his own instrument, assimilated to his own attitude, a new range would be given to his effectiveness. Was he capable of assimilating it? We do not know how he reasoned in this last artistic crisis;but we do know what he did. He made Seward’s paragraph his own. Into the graceful but not masterly—the half-way rhetorical—words of Seward he infused his own quality. He reorganized their feeble pattern by means of his own incomparable sense of rhythm. The result was the concluding paragraph of the First Inaugural:

  • I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and every patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.
  • The final Lincoln, in the literary sense, had arrived. Though an ultra-delicate critic might find a subdivision of this final period in the year 1862, the point is minute and hardly worth making. During the four years remaining in his life, his style has always the same qualities:flexibility, directness, pregnancy, wealth. It is always applied art, never for an instant unfaithful to the business in hand. Never for an instant does it incrust the business,—as the rhetorician would do,—nor ever overlay it with decoration. At the same time it contrives always to compel the business to transact itself in an atmosphere that is the writer’s own creation; an atmosphere in which great thoughts are enriched by golden lustres, while ordinary thoughts bear themselves as do poor souls transfigured, raised momentarily to a level with the great by a passionate vision of great things.