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A President & His Poem Abe Lincoln

Posted on December 4, 2012 at 7:45 AM

             Elegy Written in a Country Church yard

                                                      By Thomas Grey

                                                                   1751

Originally titled Stanza's Wrote in a Country Church-Yard, the poem was completed when Gray was living near the Stoke Poges churchyard. It was sent to his friend Horace Walpole, who popularized the poem among London literary circles. Gray was eventually forced to publish the work on 15 February 1751, to pre-empt a magazine publisher from printing an unlicensed copy of the poem. See Wiki for fuller background on Thomas Grey's Poem. See Life Of Abraham Lincoln Stefan Lorant 1954.

                   See how Abe Lincoln summed up his youth at the end of this summary

                                                           Compiler Tom Hilber

    First Things First: Samuel Lincoln, a weaver apprentice left England in 1637 settling in Massachusetts. Thomas Lincoln, a landowner, Paid $200.00 cash for 300 acres near Present day Hodgenville Kentucky, on Nolin Creek, followed the wilderness trail west and at age 28, married Nancy Hanks, age 22, on June 12, 1806. They lived in Elizabethtown Kentucky, owned a home there and had a first child Sarah born February 10 1807 and Abraham was later born in the wilderness on a bed made of cornhusks and bearskins to Nancy (Hanks) and Thomas Lincoln on February 12, 1809. Thomas was a farmer, carpenter, hunter and fisherman and Nancy took care of the cabin, cooked, baked, washed and sewed while looking after the two children.

In 1811 Thomas found the Nolin Creek Tennessee land barren and bought another track of land on the old much traveled Cumberland Trail between Louisville Kentucky and Nashville Tennessee. Abraham took his learning in the pristine Knob Creek Valley, high hills and deep gorges. By age six he was learning reading writing and ciphering from a teacher. The Lincoln’s lived here five years but lost the land they’d cleared and developed, to a title disputes, then rampant in Kentucky.

They moved to Little Pigeon Creek Gentryville Indiana. It was here in Spencer County off the Ohio River a piece where they chopped down trees and drank from spring water. They built a cabin raised corn wheat and oats and became reasonable comfortable. Thomas bought the land from Gentry for 400 gallons of whiskey. The Thomas Sparrows Nancy’s aunt and uncle, their foster son Dennis Hanks, went with them. Two years later Nancy Lincoln died from milk-sickness. The Sparrow’s both died along with Nancy Lincoln. Dennis, Abe and Thomas built Nancy’s (his Mom) coffin from a log left over from the cabin. Oldest sister Sarah took over household duties at 12 years old.

Thomas, post haste, went a courting an old flame, Sarah Bush Johnson now also a widow back in Elizabethville. She had a son John Johnson and two girls. They were married 1819 after Thomas paid all her bills. The three boys, Abe Dennis, John, slept in the loft the three girls, Sarah and the two Johnson girls, slept downstairs with the newly married couple’s blended family. Eight People lived in that tiny cabin that Sarah quickly had upgraded by Thomas Lincoln’s skills as a carpenter. Abe’s new stepmother took a liking to him and encouraged him to read; Aesop’s Fables, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Weems’s Life of Washington, Bunyan’s Pilgrims Progress, and Grimshaw’s History of the United States. By Age 10 Abe would read at church services from the Bible call out a hymn and preached sermons. 1820 Abe was kicked by a horse driving a grinding mill and rendered unconscious.

By age 19 he was hired by the town’s founder to float down the Mississippi with farm produce to New Orleans the first big city Lincoln ever saw! At age 20 Sister Sarah had been married for three years to Aaron Grigsby and died in childbirth. The Lincolns picked up and moved again and this time Illinois. Near the Sangamon River ten miles from Decatur, built another cabin, split rails to fence ten acres, broke ground and raised a corn the first year. Lincoln told a reporter once, when he was running for US president, that his youth could be summed up in one sentence found in Gery’s ‘Elegy’- the short and simple annuals of the poor.

                                                            Poem 

                                                 By Thomas Grey 1751

The poem begins in a churchyard with a narrator who is describing his surroundings in vivid detail. The narrator emphasizes both aural and visual sensations as he examines the area in relation to himself.

 

The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,

The lowing herd wind slowly o'er the lea

The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,

And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

Now fades the glimm'ring landscape on the sight,

And all the air a solemn stillness holds,

Save where the beetle wheels his droning flight,

And drowsy tinklings lull the distant folds;

Save that from yonder ivy-mantled tow'r

The moping owl does to the moon complain

Of such, as wand'ring near her secret bow'r,

Molest her ancient solitary reign. (lines 1–12)

As the poem continues, the narrator begins to focus less on the countryside and more on his immediate surroundings. His descriptions begin to move from sensations to his own thoughts about the dead. As the poem changes, the narrator begins to emphasize what is not present in the scene, he contrasts an obscure country life with a life that is remembered. This contemplation provokes the narrator's thoughts on waste that comes in nature.

 

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,

The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:

Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,

And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast

The little tyrant of his fields withstood;

Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,

Some Cromwell guiltless of his country's blood.

The applause of listening senates to command,

The threats of pain and ruin to despise,

To scatter plenty o'er a smiling land,

And read their hist'ry in a nation's eyes,

Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib'd alone

Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin'd;

Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,

And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,

The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,

To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,

Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride

With incense kindled at the Muse's flame. (lines 53–72)

The narrator focuses on the inequities that come from death, obscuring individuals, while he begins to resign himself to his own inevitable fate. As the poem ends, the narrator begins to deal with death in a direct manner as he discusses how humans desire to be remembered. As the narrator does so, the poem shifts and the first narrator is replaced by a second who describes the death of the first.

 

For thee, who mindful of th' unhonour'd Dead

Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;

If chance, by lonely contemplation led,

Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,

Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,

Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn

Brushing with hasty steps the dews away

To meet the sun upon the upland lawn. (lines 93–100)

The poem concludes with a description of the poet's grave that the narrator is meditating over, together with a description of the end of that poet's life.

 

There at the foot of yonder nodding beech

That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,

His listless length at noontide would he stretch,

And pore upon the brook that babbles by.

Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,

Mutt'ring his wayward fancies he would rove,

Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,

Or craz'd with care, or cross'd in hopeless love.

One morn I miss'd him on the custom'd hill,

Along the heath and near his fav'rite tree;

Another came; nor yet beside the rill,

Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;

The next with dirges due in sad array

Slow thro' the church-way path we saw him borne.

Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,

Grav'd on the stone beneath yon aged thorn." (lines 101–116)

An epitaph is included after the conclusion of the poem. The epitaph reveals that the poet whose grave is the focus of the poem was unknown and obscure. The poet was separated from the other common people because he was unable to join with the common affairs of life, and circumstance kept him from becoming something greater.

 

Here rests his head upon the lap of Earth

A youth to Fortune and to Fame unknown.

Fair Science frown'd not on his humble birth,

And Melancholy mark'd him for her own.

Large was his bounty, and his soul sincere,

Heav'n did a recompense as largely send:

He gave to Mis'ry all he had, a tear,

He gain'd from Heav'n ('twas all he wish'd) a friend.

No farther seek his merits to disclose,

Or draw his frailties from their dread abode,

(There they alike in trembling hope repose)

The bosom of his Father and his God. (lines 117–128)

The original conclusion from the earlier version of the poem promotes the view that humans should be resigned to the fact that we will die, which differs from the indirect, third person description in the final version.

 

The thoughtless World to majesty may bow

Exalt the brave, & idolize Success

But more to Innocence their Safety owe

Than Power & Genius e'er conspired to bless

And thou, who mindful of the unhonour'd Dead

Dost in these Notes thy artless Tale relate

By Night & lonely contemplation led

To linger in the gloomy Walks of Fate

Hark how the sacred Calm, that broods around

Bids ev'ry fierce tumultous Passion ease

In still small Accents whisp'ring from the Ground

A grateful Earnest of eternal Peace

No more with Reason & thyself at strife;

Give anxious Cares & endless Wishes room

But thro' the cool sequester'd Vale of Life

Pursue the silent Tenour of thy Doom.

 

See Wiki for fuller background on Thomas Grey's Poem.

See Life Of Abraham Lincoln Stefan Lorant 1954.             

           -end-

 

                                    

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