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

XXII. Lincoln

§ 3. Juvenilia

So of the literary Lincoln. Looking back from the few great performances of his fruition, why did we not earlier foresee them? There are gleams all along that now strike us as the careless hints of a great unseen power that was approaching. But why—considering the greatness of the final achievement—were they no more than gleams?

Here is an original literary artist who never did any deliberate literary work, who enriched English style in spite of himself under pressure of circumstances. His style is but the flexibility with which his expression follows the movements of a peculiar mind. And as the mind slowly unfolds, becomes overcast, recedes, advances, so, in the main, does the style. The usual symptoms of the literary impulse are all to seek. He is wholly preoccupied with the thing behind the style. Again the idea of a nature shrouded, withdrawn, that dwells within, that emerges mysteriously. His youth, indeed, has a scattered, unemphatic intimation of something else. What might be called the juvenilia of this inscrutable mind include some attempts at verse. They have no literary value. More significant than his own attempts is the fact that verse early laid a strong hold upon him. Years later, when the period of his juvenilia may be counted in the past, as late as 1846, in denying the authorship of a newspaper poem he added: “I would give all I am worth and go in debt to be able to write so fine a piece.” Even in the first period of his maturity he could still lapse into verse. A visit to his former home in 1844 called forth two poems that have survived. One was a reverie in the vein of

  • O Memory! thou midway world
  • Twixt earth and Paradise,
  • Where things decayed and loved ones lost
  • In dreamy shadows rise.
  • The other was a description of an idiot, long a familiar village figure. Commenting on this poem, Lincoln refers to his “poetizing mood.” His official biographers tell us that his favourite poets were Shakespeare, Burns, Byron, and Tom Hood, and add that his taste was “rather morbid.” Byron’s Dream was one of his favourites. It is a commonplace that he never tired of the trivial stanzas beginning
  • Oh why should the spirit of mortal be proud.
  • When his writings come to be edited as literary remains—not merely as historical data—the period of his juvenilia will close with the year 1842. The first period of his maturity will extend to the close of his one term in Congress. Or, it may be, these two periods will be run together. To repeat, there are no sharp dividing lines across this part of his life. He was thirty-three in 1842; forty when he retired from Congress. Either age, in such a connection, is strangely removed from the precocious. In his writings before the end of his thirty-third year there is nothing that would have kept his name alive. However, even as early as twenty-three, in an address to the “People of Sangamon County” submitting himself as a candidate for the legislature, Lincoln revealed two, at least, of the characteristics of his eventual style—its lucidity and its sense of rhythm. Boy as he was, he was little touched by the bombastic rhetoricality of his day. On this side, from the first, he had purity of taste. His sense of rhythm—faintly to be sure—was also beginning to assert itself in 1832. Lincoln’s sense of rhythm was far deeper, far more subtle, than mere cadence. In time it became a marvellous power for arranging ideas in patterns so firmly, so clearly, with such unfaltering disposition of emphasis that it is impossible to read them into confusion—as is so easy to do with the idea-patterns of ordinary writers. And with this sense of the idea-pattern grew up at last a sense of cadence most delicately and beautifully accompanying, and reinforcing, the movement of the ideas. In 1832 there were but gleams of all this—but genuine gleams.

    The ten years following, sterile from the point of view of production, are none the less to the student of Lincoln’s mind most important. As to literary workmanship in these years, what he did to develop his power of expression—in all but the vaguest outline the story is gone. That he read insatiably, that he studied and practised law, that he won local fame as an oral story-teller and as an impromptu debater, these details are preserved. With these is another tradition borne out by his writing. He was a constant reader of the Bible. This introduces the most perplexing question of his inner life. What was his religion? The later Lincoln—the one to whom, perhaps, we get the clue in these ten years between twenty-three and thirty-three—is invariably thought of in popular local tradition as a man of piety. But on this point what do we know? Lincoln has left us no self revelation. His letters, with the exception of one group, are not intimate. His native taciturnity, in this respect, was unconquerable.