Presidential Poetry Battle: George Washington Versus Abraham Lincoln
If only we could all go back in time...
In any American history class, it was without a doubt that you would learn about George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The first and sixteenth presidents of the United States have tons of books about lives and time in office. Perhaps people repeat the tale of George Washington’s wooden teeth or call Mr. Lincoln ‘Honest Abe,’ but no one’s ever mentioned poetry.
These men always look so serious in their painted portraits and photographs, but what lies beneath those straight smiles is actually quite spirited and passionate. Both men let their feelings out on paper and it’s actually quite beautiful. Washington was a poet at fifteen, a total youngster, and scribbled this poem out while he was surveying the land in North Virginia:
Image Via Washington Post
From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you’l Find
Ah! woe’s me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish’d, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was’t free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.
Who knew George Washington was so romantic? If you don’t see it yet, this is an acrostic poem, meaning the first letter of each line spells out a word: Frances Alexa. This poem was indeed written for a young girl by the name of Frances Alexander, for whom George felt fondly. Yet we’re wondering why he never completed her full name in his poem? He had four more letters, but perhaps the woes of love struck his hand and heart too hard. Or he simply ran out of ideas.
According to the Washington Post, John Lundburg, a poetry professor, describes the writing as mediocre. “It’s not a winter at Valley Forge disaster, but you can see Washington struggling to hold his poem together: he mangles syntax to fit the iambic pentameter, and has more than a few awkward lines.” This ode to Frances is one of the only other known poems by the president. His wife Martha burned all written correspondence between them as per his request after his death.
But wait. Washington wasn’t the only one tossing lovely poetry and prose around. Lincoln was a poet for life, whether it was scribbled on the side of his school book or an address at Gettysburg. Although some of his work was also destroyed, we can still read an excerpt from “My Childhood Home I See Again.” It’s a bit more sad than Washington’s, as it makes us question if we could ever really go home. It’s nearly two dozen verses, but here are a few:
My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.
O Memory! thou midway world
’Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,
And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle,
All bathed in liquid light.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms;
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.
Even the poet Robert Pinsky himself said Lincoln’s poem is “the real thing.” He rarely ever shared his work with anyone other than close friends, but after his assassination a small part of his poem was published in the newspaper. Although Jimmy Carter was the only president to publish a book of poems, the Library of Congress still keeps a collection of all presidential poetry. Start reading them here!
Feature Image Via Quirk Books