When it comes to ranking the presidents, there are only two contenders for the top spot: George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. They had a few things in common: Both lost a parent as a child, both had a serious demeanor, and both dabbled with writing poetry.
But only one was any good at poetry.
Consider this declaration of love from 15-year-old Washington, written in his expedition journal while he was surveying Virginia’s Northern Neck.
“From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you’l Find
Ah! woe’s me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish’d, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was’t free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.”
You may have noticed this poem is an acrostic, vertically spelling FRANCES ALEXA. No, Washington wasn’t opining about his Amazon device. The poem was about a young lady named Frances Alexander, and he appears to have abandoned his effort four lines shy of completion. Whether that was because his feelings for her dissolved, or because he became frustrated with his ode, we do not know.
Poetry professor John Lundberg is not impressed.
“It’s not a winter at Valley Forge disaster, but you can see Washington struggling to hold his poem together: he mangles syntax to fit the iambic pentameter, and has more than a few awkward lines,” he wrote in HuffPost.
Washington’s only other known poem is from the same period and is similarly melodramatic (“That in an enraptured Dream I may … Possess those joys denied by Day”). Whether he ever wrote a verse about his wife, Martha, with whom he had a loving marriage, we don’t know. At George’s request, Martha destroyed nearly all of their correspondence shortly after his death.
As for Lincoln, he was a lifelong poet, from writing a cheeky verse on his math book at school (“Abraham Lincoln/his hand and pen/he will be good but/god knows When”) to a strange poem he wrote after Gettysburg from the perspective of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
No copies survive of the poem for which he was best-known in his lifetime, which is probably a good thing. “Chronicles of Reuben” was crude and cruel, meant to lampoon his late sister’s husband’s family, whom Lincoln blamed for her death. Written when Lincoln was in his 20s, the satire spread like wildfire. Lincoln’s neighbor at the time, Joseph C. Richardson, later told biographer William Herndon that it was “remembered here in Indiana in scraps better than the Bible.”
In his 30s, after he had established a law practice in Springfield, Ill., his poetry turned serious. He wrote his most ambitious work while running for Congress. “My Childhood Home I See Again” is a melancholy elegy to youth lost, darkly observing the truism that you can never truly go home again. Written in two cantos, the full work is nearly two dozen verses.
“My childhood’s home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.
O Memory! thou midway world
’Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,
And, freed from all that’s earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle,
All bathed in liquid light.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms;
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.”
(The full version can be read here.)
Poet Robert Pinsky calls Lincoln’s poetry “the real thing.” Lincoln “combines polished but conventional passages in ballad meter with another element, powerfully imagined and turbulent,” Pinsky wrote in Slate.
Lincoln generally shared his poetry only in letters to friends, but after his assassination in 1865, an abbreviated version of “My Childhood Home I See Again” was published in newspapers. And thus, Lincoln’s own words spoke to the public about the loss of their president.
The Library of Congress keeps a catalogue of all presidential poetry, which includes a poem from 19-year-old Barack Obama about his grandfather, and some sexy rhymes from Warren G. Harding to his mistress.
Only one president is known to have published a book of poetry: former president Jimmy Carter, in 1995. New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani wrote an unforgiving review. No word on what she thinks of “My Childhood Home I See Again” or FRANCES ALEXA.
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