Indeed, he developed a philosophical melancholy. "He felt very strongly," said his friend Joseph Gillespie, "that there was more of discomfort than real happiness in human existence under the most favorable circumstances and the general current of his reflections was in that channel." Once a girl named Rosa Haggard, the daughter of a hotel proprietor in Winchester, Illinois, asked Lincoln to sign her autograph album. Lincoln took the book and wrote,
You are young, and I am older;
You are hopeful, I am not—
Enjoy life, ere it grows colder—
Pluck the roses ere they rot.
At a time when newspapers were stuffed with ads for substances to cure all manner of ailments, it wouldn't have been unusual for Lincoln to seek help at a pharmacy. He had a charge account at the Corneau and Diller drugstore, at 122 South Sixth Street in Springfield, where he bought a number of medications, including opiates, camphor, and sarsaparilla. On one occasion he bought fifty cents' worth of cocaine, and he sometimes took the "blue mass"—a mercury pill that was believed to clear the body of black bile.
To whatever extent Lincoln used medicines, his essential view of melancholy discounted the possibility of transformation by an external agent. He believed that his suffering proceeded inexorably from his constitution—that, in a phrase he used in connection with a friend, he was "naturally of a nervous temperament." Through no fault of his own, he believed, he suffered more than others.
Some strategies in response were apparent. As noted, work was a first refuge; he advised a friend, "I think if I were you, in case my mind were not exactly right, I would avoid being idle." When he was off duty, two things gave him most relief. He told stories and jokes, studiously gathering new material from talented peers and printed sources. And he gave vent to his melancholy by reading, reciting, and composing poetry that dwelled on themes of death, despair, and human futility. Yet, somewhat in the way that insulin allows diabetics to function without eliminating the root problem, this strategy gave Lincoln relief without taking away his need for it.
Consider his favorite poem, which he began to recite often in his mid-thirties. It was in one sense, as a colleague observed, "a reflex in poetic form of the deep melancholy of his soul," and in another a way to manage that melancholy. One story of his recitations comes from Lois Newhall, a member of the Newhall Family troupe of singers. During an Illinois tour in the late 1840s the troupe encountered Lincoln and two colleagues, who were traveling the same circuit giving political speeches. They ended up spending eight days together, and on their last they sat up late singing songs.
As the night wore down, Lincoln's colleagues started pressing him to sing. Lincoln was embarrassed and demurred, but he finally said, "I'll tell you what I'll do for you. You girls have been so kind singing for us. I'll repeat to you my favorite poem." Leaning against the doorjamb, which looked small behind his lanky frame, and with his eyes half closed, Lincoln recited from memory.
O[h] why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
Like a swift, fleeting meteor—a fast-flying cloud—
A flash of the lightning—a break of the wave—
He passeth from life to his rest in the grave.
The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade,
Be scattered around, and together be laid;
And the young and the old, and the low and the high
Shall molder to dust and together shall lie.
Lincoln first came across the poem in the early 1830s. Then, in 1845, he saw it in a newspaper, cut it out, and committed it to memory. He didn't know who wrote it, because it had been published without attribution. He repeated the lines so often that people suspected they were his own. "Beyond all question, I am not the author," he wrote. "I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is." When he was president Lincoln learned that the poem had been written by William Knox, a Scotsman who died in 1825.