Lincoln in his casket made the long journey home to Springfield.
As every school child used to know, Abraham Lincoln was shot in the head by an actor while attending a frothy comedy at Ford’s Theater on April 14, 1865 and died a few hours later on a boarding house bed too small for his famously lanky frame. It was just four days after Lee surrendered and the Union seemed preserved.
No other American has inspired so much poetry. 154 years later poets are still at it. I have shared many of the fruits of their labors on this date in the National Poetry Month series. Today we will revisit a versifier from Springfield, Illinois.
Vachel Lindsay was born in Lincoln’s adopted home town of Springfield and raised in a big old house the next block over from the Governor’s mansion. Unlike some poets who rebel against their roots and try to distance themselves from what they may consider their mundane or plebian roots, Lindsay loved—nay adored—his hometown. He reveled in its lore, it tree shaded streets, its people great and common, White and Black. He knew well Lincoln’s haunts on the Square across from the old sandstone Capital, the frame house far simpler than his own, the Depot from which he departed alive for the last time and to which he returned amid pomp in an ornate box. He knew the old men, bent, broken, bearded, and gray who as lads had marched smartly away to fight in Mr. Lincoln’s War. And, of course, he knew the grand mausoleum that the city and its citizens had built for him, fit for a pharaoh of old the locals said, on hill at the cemetery on the edge of town.
It was no wonder that when Lindsay thought of Springfield, he thought of Lincoln —and thought of him as a specter risen from his tomb, especially as he wrote during the fresh carnage of a World War.
Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight
(In Springfield, Illinois)
It is portentous, 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 in 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 and 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.