Presidential Picks: Abraham Lincoln's Favorite Poetry
If Abraham Lincoln's leadership is any indication of his ability to navigate America's complex cultural landscape, then you might want to take heed of Lincoln's recommended reading list. Compiled from the president's biographers' list of works he read, many of these poems were included in his intimate correspondence, memorized in private, or even recited on cue. Lincoln states that
Writing, the art of communicating thoughts to the mind, through the eye—is the great invention of the world. Great in the astonishing range of analysis and combination . . . great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.1
Browse these selections from Lincoln's personal library, and start a conversation with the past president—through the poetry he loved.
by William Knox
About this poem—often listed as his favorite—Lincoln wrote to his friend Andrew Johnston:
I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is. Neither do I know who is the author. I met it in a straggling form in a newspaper last summer, and I remember to have seen it once before, about fifteen years ago, and this is all I know about it.2
After hearing Lincoln recite it, a bystander once requested to read the full poem, upon which the president kindly hand-wrote a copy and mailed it to her.3
Hamlet, Act III, Scene III [Oh my offence is rank]
by William Shakespeare
Francis B. Carpenter claims that Lincoln once stated how "there is one passage of the play of Hamlet which is very apt to be slurred over by the actor, or omitted altogether, which seems to me the choicest part of the play. It is the soliloquy of the King, after the murder. It always struck me as one of the finest touches of nature in the world"4:
... What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? ...
And in an 1863 letter to the actor James Hackett, Lincoln went as far as saying: "Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing 'Oh my offense is rank' surpasses that commencing, 'To be or not to be.'"5
"Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
by Thomas Gray
John Locke Scripps, writing to William H. Herndon—from one biographer to another—recalls a conversation he had with the president:
"Why Scripps," said [Lincoln], on one occasion, "it is a great piece of folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life. It can all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray's Elegy: 'The short and simple annals of the poor.'"6
That he refers to a sentence fragment makes the sentiment perhaps even more fitting. The whole stanza reads:
Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile
The short and simple annals of the Poor.
"The Last Leaf"
by Oliver Wendell Holmes
William Herndon writes that Lincoln "always had a great fondness for Oliver Wendell Holmes's 'Last Leaf,' the fourth stanza of which beginning with the verse, 'The mossy marbles rest,' I have often heard him repeat,"7 which reads—
The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has prest
In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.
Additionally, Harkness and McMurtry report that: "Lincoln told [Noah] Brooks that he liked 'Lexington' as well as any piece in the book of Holmes's poems and began to read, coming to the lines 'Green be the graves where her martyrs are lying! / Shroudless and tombless they sunk to their rest,' when, Brooks said, 'his voice faltered, and he gave me the book with the whispered request, 'You read it; I can't.'"8
"A Man's A Man For A' That"
by Robert Burns
At the 1865 annual banquet of Washington D.C.'s Robert Burns Club, when President Lincoln was asked to toast the poet, he replied: "I cannot frame a toast to Burns. I can say nothing worthy of his generous heart and transcending genius. Thinking of what he has said, I cannot say anything which seems worth saying."9
by Edgar Allan Poe
Though Abraham Lincoln and Edgar Allan Poe never formally interacted, John T. Stuart reports that the president "carried Poe around on the Circuit—read and loved 'The Raven'—repeated it over & over."10
Published in 1845, "The Raven" was popular enough to inspire a number of parodies—including one by Lincoln's fellow attorney, Andrew Johnston "in which an experience with a polecat replaced Poe's conversation with his feathered midnight visitor." According to biographer Benjamin Thomas, Lincoln read the parody first, then later "sought out Poe's original poem, which had been written the previous year."11
by William Cullen Bryant
William H. Townsend writes that during a visit to Mary Todd's Lexington home in November, 1847, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his time in their library reading. On that trip, he learned "Thanatopsis" by heart and recited it to his wife and her family.12
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III
by Lord Byron
Ward H. Lamon recounts one of Lincoln's visits, in the fall of 1854, to his law office in West Urbana:
I had no law library to speak of, but made a display of miscellaneous books to fill up, and render less inviting the appearance of the cupboard shelves. Lincoln took down a well-worn copy of Byron (which no boy's library at that time was without) and, readily turning to the third canto of Childe Harold, read aloud from the 34th verse [stanza], commencing:"There is a very life in our despair," etc., to and including the 45th verse...This poetry was very familiar to him evidently; he looked specifically for, and found it with no hesitation, and read it with a fluency that indicated that he had read it oftentimes before. I think I am justified in saying that he read it sadly and earnestly, if not, indeed, reverently.13
"My Childhood Home I See Again"
by Abraham Lincoln
Though Lincoln had a humble sensibility toward his own verse, his small collection of poems offers insights into what the literary-minded Lincoln was feeling and reading at the time. The poet Robert Pinsky writes that—
The United States has had a head of state who was also a great writer. Only Marcus Aurelius can compete with Abraham Lincoln.
In his introduction to The Poets' Lincoln: Tributes in verse to the Martyred President, editor O. H. Oldroyd argues that Abraham Lincoln's political speeches, such as "The Gettysburg Address," function on the same level as "vers libre," going so far as to lineate the president's speech into free verse14:
It is altogether fitting and proper
That we should do this.
But, in a larger sense,
We cannot dedicate—
We cannot consecrate—
We cannot hallow—
Whether his poetic prose was poetry, or not, the latter informed his thought—and thus a country's.
1"Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions," February, 1959
2Lincoln to Andrew Johnston, 18 April 1846, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, (Rutgers University Press, 1953)
3Illustrated Life of Abraham Lincoln, Joseph H. Barrett (Moore, Wilstacii & Baldwin, 1860)
4Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln, Francis B. Carpenter (Hurd & Houghton, 1866).
5Lincoln to James H. Hackett, 17 August 1863, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy P. Basler, (Rutgers University Press, 1953)
6John Locke Scripps to William Herndon, 24 June 1865, Herndon's Informants, eds. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, (University of Illinois Press, 1998)
7Herndon’s Life of Abraham Lincoln, William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, (Da Capo Press, 1983)
8Lincoln's Favorite Poets, David J. Harkness and Gerald McMurtry, (University of Tennessee Press, 1959)
9Intimate Memories of Lincoln, Rufus Rockwell Wilson, (Primavera Press, 1945)
10Herndon's Informants, eds. Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, (University of Illinois Press, 1998)
11Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, by Benjamin P. Thomas, (SIU Press, 2008)
12Lincoln and the Bluegrass, William H. Townsend , (University Press of Kentucky, 1955)
13Life on the Circuit with Lincoln, Henry C. Whitney, (Estes and Lauriat, 1892)
14The Poets' Lincoln: Tributes in verse to the Martyred President, ed. Osborn Hamiline Oldroyd, (Indiana University, 1915)