April 15, 2010

Poetic tributes for the death of Lincoln

April 15, 1865 — the death of Abraham Lincoln, America's first assassinated President — inspired many poetic tributes. Among them are poems by Richard Henry Stoddard, Oliver Wendell Holmes, William Cullen Bryant, and the very famous "O Captain! My Captain!" — perhaps the best-remembered poem by Walt Whitman (with a rhyming meter).

Perhaps one of the more surprising tributes in verse came from Herman Melville, today known as a novelist and, occasionally, a short story writer, rather than as a poet. In fact, in 1866, Melville published an entire volume of poems focused on the Civil War. As with many of Melville's later works, however, it was generally ignored. The poem to Lincoln, titled "Martyr," is introduced as being "indicative of the Passion of the People on the 15th of April, 1865." According the Melville, that passion is one of anger, threatening violence:

Good Friday was the day
  Of the prodigy and crime,
When they killed him in his pity,
  When they killed him in his prime
Of clemency and calm—
  When with yearning he was filled
  To redeem the evil-willed,
And, though conqueror, be kind;
  But they killed him in his kindness,
  In their madness, in their blindness,
And they killed him from behind.

  There is sobbing of the strong,
    And a pall upon the land;
  But the People in their weeping
    Bare the iron hand:
  Beware the People weeping
    When they bare the iron hand.

He lieth in his blood—
  The father in his face;
They have killed him, the Forgiver—
  The Avenger takes his place,
The Avenger wisely stern,
  Who in righteousness shall do
  What the heavens call him to,
And the parricides remand;
  For they killed him in his kindness
  In their madness and their blindness,
And his blood is on their hand.

  There is sobbing of the strong,
    And a pall upon the land;
  But the People in their weeping
    Bare the iron hand:
  Beware the People weeping
    When they bare the iron hand. 

If you'd like, compare the tone of Melville's poem with that of Julia Ward Howe:

Crown his blood-stained pillow
   With a victor's palm;
Life's receding billow
   Leaves eternal calm.

At the feet Almighty
   Lay this gift sincere;
Of a purpose weighty,
   And a record clear.

With deliverance freighted
   Was this passive hand,
And this heart, high-fated,
   Would with love command.

Let him rest serenely
   In a Nation's care,
Where her waters queenly
   Make the West most fair.

In the greenest meadow
   That the prairies show,
Let his marble's shadow
   Give all men to know:

"Our First Hero, living,
   Made his country free;
Heed the Second's giving,
   Death for Liberty."

Other poetic tributes to Lincoln (there are lots) were collected here.


  1. What a stunning contrast, Melville's and Howe's poems: fascinating juxtaposition!

    (Thanks also for the tip about Melville's Civil War poems.)

    An amusing P.S.: as I went to send this message, the word verification code came up as "porse"--an anagram for "prose"!

  2. Hello Rob - I see you visited my post about Johnson's Dictionary being published on April 15, 1755 - same day as Lincoln's death - and I see that you are continuing your wonderful journey through American literature - I am only sorry I spend so much of my time absorbed in the literature from other side of the pond!

  3. I spent much of my life either studying or teaching American Lit. I enjoy this blog every day.


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