Ode to Lincoln

The magazine’s first editor gives poetic voice to the nation’s grief.

Lincoln’s assassination stunned the nation. From April 22 to May 4, his funeral train made its way from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, reversing the president’s triumphant post-election journey to Washington in 1861. Buildings along the way were draped with black, and hundreds of thousands of mourners flocked to see his coffin.

The summer after the assassination, James Russell Lowell—who, in an influential Atlantic editorial (see “The Election in November”), had endorsed Lincoln’s presidential candidacy years earlier, and whose outspoken support over the years had once even inspired Lincoln to send him a thank-you note—gave voice to the nation’s grief in a poem delivered at Harvard in honor of students who fell in the war. The lines excerpted below were part of the poem, which Henry James commended for powerfully capturing “the great historic throb” of the war.

—Sage Stossel

Such was he, our Martyr-Chief,
      Whom late the Nation he had led,
      With ashes on her head,
Wept with the passion of an angry grief:
Forgive me, if from present things I turn
To speak what in my heart will beat and burn,
And hang my wreath on his world-honored urn.
            Nature, they say, doth dote,
            And cannot make a man
            Save on some worn-out plan,
            Repeating us by rote:
For him her Old-World mould aside she threw,
      And, choosing sweet clay from the breast
            Of the unexhausted West,
With stuff untainted shaped a hero new,
Wise, steadfast in the strength of God, and true.
            How beautiful to see
Once more a shepherd of mankind indeed,
Who loved his charge, but never loved to lead;
One whose meek flock the people joyed to be,
      Not lured by any cheat of birth,
      But by his clear-grained human worth,
And brave old wisdom of sincerity!
      They knew that outward grace is dust;
      They could not choose but trust
In that sure-footed mind's unfaltering skill,
            And supple-tempered will
That bent like perfect steel to spring again and thrust
            Nothing of Europe here,
Or, then, of Europe fronting mornward still,
          Ere any names of Serf and Peer
      Could Nature's equal scheme deface;
      Here was a type of the true elder race,
And one of Plutarch's men talked with us face face.
      I praise him not; it were too late;
And some innative weakness there must be
In him who condescends to victory
Such as the Present gives, and cannot wait;
      Safe in himself as in a fate.
            So always firmly he:
            He knew to bide his time,
            And can his fame abide,
Still patient in his simple faith sublime,
            Till the wise years decide.
      Great captains, with their guns and drums,
          Disturb our judgment for the hour,
            But at last silence comes;
      These all are gone, and, standing like a tower,
      Our children shall behold his fame,
        The kindly-earnest, brave,, foreseeing man,
      Sagacious, patient, dreading praise, not blame,
        New birth of our new soil, the first American.

This poem originally appeared in The Atlantic under the title “Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration, July 21, 1865.” Read the full text here.