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“What Is Hell To One Like Me...?”
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Still, not long thereafter his friend and political associate James H. Matheny remembered that he expected Lincoln to die by his own hand. Lincoln’s law partner during this acute depression, Congressman John T. Stuart, received a letter from him in January 1841. “I have, within the last few days, been making a most discreditable exhibition of myself in the way of hypochondriaism,” Lincoln said, then added, “Pardon me for not writing more; I have not sufficient composure to write a long letter.” Three days later he wrote Stuart: “I am now the most miserable man living.... Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better.”
According to Herndon’s biography of Lincoln (which was ghostwritten by his collaborator Jesse Weik), some weeks after the worst of this episode Lincoln “sent to the Sangamo Journal a few lines under the gloomy title of ‘Suicide.’ They were published in the paper, and a few years since I [Herndon] hunted over the files, and coming across the number containing them, was astonished to find that some one had cut them out. I have always supposed it was done by Lincoln or by some one at his instigation.”
Those few lines were a poem. We know this because Speed told Herndon about it after Lincoln’s death.
Lincoln early developed a reputation among his neighbors as a poet. According to Herndon’s notes, an Indiana relative remembered that he “wrote Poetry while he was going to School.... Essays & poetry were not taught in the school—Abe took it up of his own accord.” Another Indiana acquaintance agreed: “Abe wrote Poetry, a good deal, but I can’t recollect what about Except one piece which was entitled ‘The Neighborhood Broil.’ Abe always brought his pieces—prose or Poetry to me straight.” Lincoln’s cousin Dennis Hanks recalled, “In 1825 or 1826 [when he was in his teens] he then Exhibited a love for Poetry and wrote a piece of humorous Rhyme on his friend Josiah Crawford that made all the neighbors, Crawford included, burst their sides with laughter.”
Somber poetry also had a strong appeal. Lincoln cherished William Knox’s “Mortality.” Speaking of this meditation on the evanescence of life and the permanence of death, a law colleague said, “I have heard him, as he sat by the decaying embers of an old-fashioned fire-place, when the day’s merriment and business were over and the night’s stillness had assumed dominion, quote at length his favorite poem.”
Lincoln’s desire to share his poetry with the public had declined by the mid-1840s. His law student Gibson Harris reported that he “scribbled verses; and so far as I was capable of judging, their quality was above the average. It was accidentally that I learned this. In arranging the books and papers in the office, I found two or three quires of letter-paper stitched together in book form, and nearly filled with poetical effusions in Mr. Lincoln’s handwriting, and evidently original. I looked through them somewhat hurriedly, and when Mr. Lincoln came in, showed him the manuscript, asking him if it was his. His response was, ‘Where did you find it?’ and rolling it up put it in his coat-tail pocket; and I saw it no more. Afterwards, in speaking of the matter to Mr. Lincoln’s partner, he [Herndon] said, ‘I believe he has at times scribbled some verses; but he is, I think, somewhat unwilling to have it known.’”
One more thing should be mentioned before we turn to the suicide poem itself. In the late 1830s, not long after Lincoln confided suicidal fears to his friend Robert Wilson, some young men in Springfield formed a writers’ club in which the participants composed poetry and shared it with one another. Lincoln was a member. So was a co-publisher of the Sangamo Journal, Newton Francis.
What if Herndon and Weik’s assumption that the suicide poem had been written in response to Lincoln’s despondency of early 1841 was wrong? If so, 1841 may very well be an incorrect publication date. In 1866 Speed told Herndon: “My recollection is that the Poem on Suicide was written in the Spring of 1840 or Summer of 1841. It was published in the Sangamo Journal soon after it was written.” In an earlier conversation Speed told Herndon that the poem was written and published “about 1840.” So Speed was not at all certain that the poem was connected with the January 1841 episode of depression. Indeed, Herndon once privately denied that the 1841 date had any connection at all to that year’s troubles: “As to the Lincoln poem on suicide I found out from Speed that it was written [in] 1838, and I hunted up the Journal and found where the poem was, what day published, etc., etc., but someone had cut it out—supposed to be Lincoln. I could never find another copy.”
How did Herndon know the poem had been removed from the Journal’s file of back issues? He never claimed to have seen the poem, never even claimed to have known about it except through Speed’s own imprecise recollection. The existing run of the Journal does have mutilations, but how could Herndon have known that any specific blank spot in a newspaper had once been occupied by a poem that apparently he had never read and that had been printed in a year he seemed unsure about?
The only authority for the poem’s disappearance is Herndon. If we accept that he could have been mistaken about that, an anonymous poem entitled “The Suicide’s Soliloquy” from the August 25, 1838, Sangamo Journal commands our attention. Did Lincoln write it?
Basic requirements for his authorship are met: The time frame fits, it was published in the Sangamo Journal, and it deals with suicide.