The Bear Hunt: An Original Ballad Never Before Printed

Light verse composed by America's sixteenth president

Abraham Lincoln is shown in a photograph by W.A. Thomson, made in Monmouth, Ill., on the day of his debate with Stephen A. Douglas, Oct. 1858. (W.A. Thomson / AP )

Abraham Lincoln neither wrote, nor attempted to write, much verse. What little he did write was perhaps the product of a sort of mental exercise—to gratify an impulse to see what he could do.

Writing from Springfield, Illinois, on September 6, 1846, to his former Springfield neighbor, Andrew Johnston, then living in Richmond, Lincoln refers to a promise once made Johnston to ‘bore’ him with another ‘little canto of what I called poetry.’ The 1846 message to Johnston fulfilled this promise, the subject of the poem being Matthew Gentry, the insane son of the leading citizen of Gentryville, Indiana, where Lincoln had lived for some thirteen years, from young boyhood on. In 1844 Lincoln was campaigning in Southern Indiana, and it was at this time that the sad condition of his former schoolmate was revealed to him. The first verse of the Matthew Gentry poem, which may be found in the complete works of Lincoln, reads as follows:—

But here’s an object more of dread
That aught the grave contains—
A human form with reason fled
While wretched life remains.

In the letter sent to Johnston enclosing the verse, Lincoln says: ‘If I should ever send another (poem), the subject will be a “Bear Hunt.”’

Some time later Lincoln wrote ‘The Bear Hunt,’ and sent it to his friend. Whether he retained a copy is doubtful, but Johnston apparently kept the manuscript until 1869, when he passed it on to Thomas H. Wynne, of Richmond. The latter bequeathed it to R. A. Brock, of Richmond, by whom it was sold in 1905 to George S. Hellman, of New York, who in turn disposed of it to J. P. Morgan. The original manuscript, in perfect condition, is now in the Morgan Library in New York.

—Charles T. White

A wild bear chase didst never see?
            Then hast thou lived in vain—
Thy richest bump of glorious glee
            Lies desert in thy brain.

When first my father settled here,
            ’T was then the frontier line;
The panther’s scream filled night with fear
            And bears preyed on the swine.

But woe for bruin’s short-lived fun
            When rose the squealing cry;
Now man and horse, with dog and gun
            For vengeance at him fly.

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

On press his foes, and reach the ground
            Where’s left his half-munched meal;
The dogs, in circles, scent around
            And find his fresh made trail.

With instant cry, away they dash,
            And me at fast pursue;
O’er logs they leap, through water splash
            And shout the brisk halloo.

Now to elude the eager pack
            Bear shuns the open ground,
Through matted vines he shapes his track,
            And runs it, round and round.

The tall, fleet cur, with deep-mouthed voice
           Now speeds him, as the wind;
While half-grown pup, and short-legged fice*
            Are yelping far behind.

And fresh recruits are dropping in
            To join the merry corps;
With yelp and yell, a mingled din—
            The woods are in a roar—

And round, and round the chase now goes,
            The world ’s alive with fun;
Nick Carter’s horse his rider throws,
            And Mose Hill drops his gun.

Now, sorely pressed, bear glances  back,
            And lolls his tired tongue,
When as, to force him from his track
            An ambush on him sprung.

Across the glade he sweeps for flight,
            And fully is in view—
The dogs, new fired by the sight
            Their cry and speed renew.

The foremost ones now reach his rear;
            He turns, they dash away,
And circling now the wrathful bear
            They have him full at bay.

At top of speed the horsemen come,
            All screaming in a row—
‘Whoop!’ ‘Take him, Tiger!’ ‘Seize him, Drum!’
            BangBang!  the rifles go!

And furious now, the dogs he tears,
            And crushes in his ire—
Wheels right and left, and upward rears,
            With eyes of burning fire.

But leaden death is at his heart—
            Vain all the strength he plies,
And, spouting blood from every part,
            He reels, and sinks, and dies!

And now a dinsome clamor rose,—
            ‘But who should have his skin?’
Who first draws blood, each hunter knows
            This prize must always win.

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.

Aforesaid fice, of blustering mood,
            Behind, and quite forgot,
Just now emerging from the wood
            Arrives upon the spot.

With grinning teeth, and up-turned hair
            Brim full of spunk and wrath,
He growls, and seizes on dead bear
            And shakes for life and death—

And swells, as if his skin would tear,
            And growls, and shakes again,
And swears, as plain as dog can swear
            That he has won the skin!

Conceited whelp! we laugh at thee,
            Nor mind that not a few
Of pompous, two-legged dogs there be
            Conceited quite as you.

* A small dog of nondescript breed. Local, U. S. A. — The Editor