The Wild Romp of Abraham Lincoln’s ‘The Bear Hunt’

Matthew Brady and Alexander Hesler / Library of Congress
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

In 1925, when The Atlantic first published “The Bear Hunt,” the editor’s preface remarked that Abraham Lincoln “neither wrote, nor attempted to write, much verse.” But what he did write ain’t half bad! There’s a reason why American poet Carl Sandburg took up Honest Abe as a muse.

To me, Lincoln’s most enchanting poems are the three-canto series he sent to his former Springfield neighbor, Andrew Johnston, in 1847. The first two—published together in Johnston’s Whig newspaper as “My Childhood Home I See Again” —were subtitled “Reflection” and “The Maniac.” These poems convey Lincoln’s early bout with melancholy, dealing with nostalgia and loss, fear and anguish—the pain of losing loved ones or one’s mind. (Lincoln even asked to remain anonymous as the author when he sent the third canto.) They moved me to contemplate the battle commemorations in my hometown of Gettysburg and to record Lincoln’s poems to original music.

But the final canto, published almost 80 years after the first two as “The Bear Hunt,” is jolly escapism—it’s most joyous when read aloud. The scene transports us to the woods, where a bear’s “short-lived fun” of preying on pigs is cut short as “man and horse, with dog and gun / For vengeance, at him fly.” We settle inside the bear’s mind for a minute as it runs through a thicket—where Lincoln even manages to drop a dog pun:

A sound of danger strikes his ear;
He gives the breeze a snuff;
Away he bounds, with little fear,
And seeks the tangled rough.

He then recruits an entire “merry corps” to fill the senses—as dogs “scent around,” horses throw riders, and “bang—bang! the rifles go!” I won’t spoil the ending, but a dispute mints this great Lincoln coinage:

But, who did this, and how to trace
What ’s true from what ’s a lie,—
Like lawyers in a murder case
They stoutly argufy.

The argument doesn’t end with a verdict, but you’ll have to read the full story to find out who wins “The Bear Hunt.”