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“What Is Hell To One Like Me...?”
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
This last factor is important. Illinois newspapers in that era commonly printed verse about the inevitability of death and its associated griefs—but not about suicide.
But why would Lincoln have a poem about suicide published? The assumption has been that it came from his severe depression of 1841 and, by implication, that putting it in print somehow helped with his internal struggle. But Lincoln was never known for the public confession of intimate thoughts. In 1838, however, as part of a poetry writers’ club whose members included the co-publisher of the Journal , the young man may simply have produced a powerful item in which he felt pride and that his literary friends admired. The emotion in the piece may have been inspired by his own experiences, but the poem should probably be viewed more as a literary exercise than self-therapy.
Regardless of whether such a piece might have come out of his writers’ group, the “literary exercise” interpretation goes far in explaining why the Sangamo Journal would publish a suicide poem submitted by Lincoln. The Journal’s editor, Simeon Francis, was known for allowing him access to the newspaper’s columns. Moreover, since Lincoln and Francis were personal friends and political colleagues, it is unthinkable that Francis would have published anything likely to produce doubts about Lincoln’s steadiness. Francis would have viewed an 1838 submission from a member of his brother’s poetry club in a far different light from an 1841 submission from a political ally whose recent despondent conduct had become a matter of public comment. An anonymous author’s identity could not have been kept secret for long in the hothouse atmosphere of Springfield social and political gossip, and such a revelation would have exposed an elected official to never-ending local scrutiny. Lack of any such Springfield memory about a Lincoln suicide poem argues against the 1841 therapeutic interpretation.
Lincoln’s secretary and biographer John G. Nicolay observed: “The music of Lincoln’s thought was always in the minor key. His favorite poems, such as ‘Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?’ and Holmes’s ‘Last Leaf’ specially emphasize this mood; they are distinctively poems of sadness. So also among Shakespeare’s plays he found his chief fascination in Macbeth, full of the same undercurrent of the great problems of life and destiny with which his own slight attempts at versification are in harmony.”
He wrote another poem that contains musings about madness and about choosing to seek death and delves into the interplay of rationality and insanity, suggesting that some circumstances can make death preferable to life.
Nicolay’s observations raise more points relevant to associating Lincoln with “The Suicide’s Soliloquy.” The poem echoes themes in Shakespearean tragedy that almost never appear in its own era’s mortality verse. The protagonist debates whether to be or not to be, reflects on desertion or betrayal by friends, uses death to put an end to conflict. The author can easily be envisioned as a lover of Shakespeare; indeed, Shakespearean influence can be suspected even in the fine points, such as the term dagger, a word seldom used in Illinois newspaper stories about violence in the 1830s and 1840s but surely familiar to admirers of Macbeth. The soliloquist’s choice of weapon is also the same one that Lincoln confided to Robert Wilson in the 1830s and that concerned Lincoln’s friends in 1841.
Given the attraction that poems about mortality had for Lincoln, it hardly seems unlikely that by 1838 he might try producing one of his own, especially since themes in “The Suicide’s Soliloquy” also emerge in a long poem he wrote evoking memories of his youth, “My Childhood-Home I See Again.” It contains musings about madness and about choosing to seek death and delves into the interplay of rationality and insanity, suggesting that some circumstances can make death preferable to life. The suicide soliloquist’s appeal to cold reason for justification of his action is especially Lincolnian.
Lincoln’s 1838 address to the Young Men’s Lyceum, a speech intensely studied for revelations about his personality, has the same kind of oratorical flourish found in the suicide poem from that year. Moreover, the poem has stylistic elements duplicated in Lincoln’s serious poetic compositions. For example, the suicide poem and Lincoln’s poems about his childhood memories, among them a vigorous, closely observed description called “The Bear Hunt,” all have fourline stanzas, usually in iambic meter, a rhythm typical of Shakespeare. The first and third lines in stanzas have eight beats; the second and fourth lines typically have six. The first lines rhyme with the third lines; the second lines, with the fourth. Not only is such scansion and rhyme typical of Lincoln the poet, it is highly unusual in other Sangamo Journal poetry (in a long run of issues from 1841, only one poem maintained those characteristics throughout). The style did not belong solely to Lincoln, of course, but it is so typical of him that its lack has been used by scholars to argue against his authorship of other poetry.
Are we justified in believing that the mystery of Lincoln’s suicide poem has been solved? I think so. Here is the poem itself, with the original introductory sentence that preceded it when it appeared in Abraham Lincoln’s local newspaper on an August day 166 years ago.
THE SUICIDE’S SOLILOQUY.