- Historic Sites
“What Is Hell To One Like Me...?”
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Lincoln’s melancholy is famous. Less well known is that he not only penned thoughts about suicide but published them in a newspaper. Scholars have long believed that the only copy in the newspaper’s files was mutilated to hide those thoughts from posterity. But the composition has apparently always been in plain sight—and unrecognized.
How did such a thing come to be written? How was it lost? Why should we think it has been found? And what does it reveal about its author?
Both of Lincoln’s parents suffered periods of bleakness often enough to attract comment from their Kentucky neighbors. Said one: “Thomas Lincoln was a real nice, agreeable man, who often got the ‘blues,’ and had some strange sort of spell, and wanted to be alone all he could when he had them. I Ie would walk away out on the barrens alone, and stay out sometimes half a day. . . . Some of us was afear’d he was losin’ his mind.” Similar behavior was observed in his young son. In 1862 an elderly woman told a visitor to his boyhood home: “Abe moped round an’ had spells, an’ we all got mighty feared that he was losin’ hisself, but he did n’t. I Ie was all right agin in a day or two, and peart as ever.”
Abraham Lincoln’s vacillation between gaiety and gloom continued to be noticed throughout his life. Someone who saw him in his forties telling stories while attending court in Bloomington, Illinois, recollected that “his eyes would sparkle with fun,... and nobody’s enjoyment was greater than his. An hour later he might be seen in the same place or in some law office nearby, but alas, how different! His chair, no longer in the center of the room, would be leaning back against the wall; his feet drawn up and resting on the front rounds so that his knees and chin were about on a level; his hat tipped sightly forward, as if to shield or hide his face; his eyes no longer sparkling with fun and merriment, but sad and downcast, and his hands clasped around his knees. There, drawn up within himself, as it were, he would sit, the very picture of dejection and gloom. Thus absorbed, have I seen him sit for hours at a time, defying the interruptions of even his closest friends. . . . By his moody silence and abstraction, he had thrown about him a barrier so dense and impenetrable that no one dared to break through. It was a strange picture, and one I have never forgotten.” Leonard Swett, a colleague of Lincoln in law and politics, asked: “What gave him that peculiar melancholy? What cancer had he inside?”
Lincoln “told me that he was so overcome with mental depression that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket. And as long as I was intimately acquainted with him... he never carried a pocket knife.”
Lincoln’s sadness probably had multiple causes. Given the occasional dejection observed in his parents and in himself as a child, genetic predisposition may have intertwined with blows dealt by life. The deaths of his mother, his sister, and two of his children challenged his resilience, and for years he struggled to pay debts generated by his store. And then there was illness. A nineteenth-century chronicler of Lincoln’s Illinois wrote that the ague, which usually meant malarial fever, “was a disease to be dreaded because of its effect upon the mind as well as upon the physical system. It induced a feeling of despondency, and took away that spirit of enterprise and that strong will, which bore up the settlers under misfortune. For many years the fever and ague was the scourge of the West.” Malaria, chronic eyestrain, low blood pressure, trouble with teeth and feet, and constipation and drug doses taken to combat it all have been suggested as contributing factors. Moreover, in addition to experiencing depression, Lincoln denied himself a common means of masking it—drinking.
Whatever the causes of his despondency, his acquaintances knew it well. “Lincoln often thought of committing suicide,” declared his law partner William H. Herndon. We don’t know whether Herndon was extrapolating from Lincoln’s actions or actually heard him speak on the subject, but another friend reported explicit conversation. Robert L. Wilson, who served with Lincoln in the Illinois legislature, wrote that in the mid-1830s “he told me that although he appeared to enjoy life rapturously, Still he was the victim of terrible melancholly.... He told me that he was so overcome with mental depression that he never dare carry a knife in his pocket. And as long as I was intimately acquainted with him... he never carried a pocket knife.”
Regardless of his personal demons, Lincoln functioned well as a lawyer, legislator, and politician. One black period, however, began on January 1, 1841, which he called the “fatal first,” when he abruptly broke his engagement to Mary Todd. And around the same time, he discovered that his best friend, Joshua Speed, was leaving town forever. “Poor fellow, he is in rather a bad way,” said one Springfield resident at the time. “The Doctors say he came within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life. He was perfectly crazy for some time, not able to attend to his business at all.” His friend Orville H. Browning declared, “He was so much affected as to talk incoherently, and to be dilirious to the extent of not knowing what he was doing.” During the 188Os Joshua Speed stated: “In the winter of 1841 a gloom came over him till his friends were alarmed for his life. Though a member of the legislature he rarely attended its sessions. In his deepest gloom, and when I told him he would die unless he rallied, he said, ‘I am not afraid, and would be more than willing.'” Lincoln instantly added, however, that he wanted to accomplish more before he died.
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.
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.
The following lines were said to have been found near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest, on the Flat Branch of the Sangamon, some time ago.