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Vachel Lindsay's "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" and "The Traveller-Heart"

Poetry became my passion after I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class circa 1962.

Introduction and Text of "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"

Vachel Lindsay’s father was a physician, who urged his son to study medicine, but the son discovered that he did not want to be a doctor. He dropped out of Hiram College and studied for a time at the Chicago Art Institute and later at the New York School of Art. While in New York, Lindsay started writing poetry.

He would print out copies of his poems and sell them on the street. He enjoyed a fairly high level of recognition for his writing, and particularly for his performances of his works. He believed that poetry was to be heard more than read, and his lively concerts brought him a wide audience.

One of his most noted poems focuses on the sixteenth president of the United States. Titled "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight," with the subtitle "In Springfield, Illinois," the poem consists of eight stanzas each with the rime scheme ABCB and separates into four movements.

(Please note: The spelling, "rhyme," was introduced into English by Dr. Samuel Johnson through an etymological error. For my explanation for using only the original form, please see "Rime vs Rhyme: An Unfortunate Error.")

Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight

(In Springfield, Illinois)

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

Reading of "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Commentary on "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"

One of Vachel Lindsay's most noted poems takes as its subject the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, likely the most beloved president of all forty-four.

(As of 2018, there have been a total of 44 US presidents. Donald J. Trump is president 45. Grover Cleveland had two presidencies that did not run consecutively—#22 and #24; thus, while there have been 45 presidencies, there have been only 44 presidents.)

First Movement: Reporting a Portentous Event

It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down.

Or by his homestead, or in shadowed yards
He lingers where his children used to play,
Or through the market, on the well-worn stones
He stalks until the dawn-stars burn away.

In the opening stanza, the speaker declares that "a mourning figure walks" near the courthouse, and this is a "portentous" event that needs to be reported.

In the second stanza, the speaker enumerates other places where the figure has been seen walking: by the home where the figure once lived and where his children played, in the market place "on the well-worn stones."

And he "stalks until the dawn-stars burn away," thus the title Lincoln "walks at midnight."

Second Movement: Worries and Restless Roused from the Grave

A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love,
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all.

He cannot sleep upon his hillside now.
He is among us:—as in times before!
And we who toss and lie awake for long
Breathe deep, and start, to see him pass the door.

The third stanza describes the figure’s appearance: bronze, lank, wearing a black suit and top-hat. These characteristics, the speaker claims, "make him the quaint great figure that men love."

And he adds that the figure is "The prairie-lawyer, master of us all." This description makes it quite clear that the figure is Lincoln.

In the fourth stanza, the speaker surmises that Lincoln is worried and restless and cannot remain in his grave; he has to come join the other people of the town who also "toss and lie awake."

And because the restless living people are kept awake by worries, they see the long dead figure walking among them.

Third Movement: Concerned with World Conditions

His head is bowed. He thinks on men and kings.
Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep?
Too many peasants fight, they know not why,
Too many homesteads in black terror weep.

The sins of all the war-lords burn his heart.
He sees the dreadnaughts scouring every main.
He carries on his shawl-wrapped shoulders now
The bitterness, the folly and the pain.

The speaker reckons that the president is worried and unable to sleep because he is cogitating over world conditions. Lincoln is likely thinking about "men and kings," and he is distressed about the struggling poor people of the world and the "sins of all the war-lords."

Lincoln paces in the town at midnight, with a load of worries that he knows are bothering this fellow citizens. The problems of the world he seems to carry on his own shoulders, including all the "folly and the pain."

Fourth Movement: A Question of Peace

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn
Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free;
The league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,
Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.

It breaks his heart that kings must murder still,
That all his hours of travail here for men
Seem yet in vain. And who will bring white peace
That he may sleep upon his hill again?

In the final two stanzas, the speaker makes the startling claim that Lincoln will not be able to rest until peace comes to the world: until Europe is free, and people wise up and bring long-lasting peace the world over "to Cornland, Alp, and Sea."

The speaker claims that Lincoln remains sorrowful because kings are still murdering, and all of his own earthy endeavors seem to be "in vain." He then concludes with the question, "And who will bring white peace / That he may sleep upon his hill again?"

The speaker wonders if there may be a solid figure on the horizon who can instill in the restless citizenry a bright peaceful atmosphere that will allow the restless former head of state the curtesy of resting in peace.

Vachel Lindsay - e-portait

Vachel Lindsay - e-portait

Vachel Lindsay's "The Traveller-Heart"

The speaker in "The Traveller-Heart" dramatizes burial in the ground as a means to a metaphorical continued existence.

Introduction and Text of "The Traveller-Heart"

Vachel Lindsay's "The Traveller-Heart" offers a rebuttal to the sentiment expressed in his epigraph: "To a Man who maintained that the Mausoleum is the Stateliest Possible Manner of Interment."

The speaker in "The Traveller-Heart" dramatizes burial in the ground as a means to a metaphorical continued existence.

The speaker's fanciful travels after death focus on the very atoms of his physical flesh, as well as the possible movement of the informing energy or soul. His take on immortality is somewhat broadened from the ordinary variety.

The Traveller-Heart

(To a Man who maintained that the Mausoleum is the Stateliest Possible Manner of Interment)

I would be one with the dark, dark earth:—
Follow the plough with a yokel tread.
I would be part of the Indian corn,
Walking the rows with the plumes o'erhead.

I would be one with the lavish earth,
Eating the bee-stung apples red:
Walking where lambs walk on the hills;
By oak-grove paths to the pools be led.

I would be one with the dark-bright night
When sparkling skies and the lightning wed—
Walking on with the vicious wind
By roads whence even the dogs have fled.

I would be one with the sacred earth
On to the end, till I sleep with the dead.
Terror shall put no spears through me.
Peace shall jewel my shroud instead.

I shall be one with all pit-black things
Finding their lowering threat unsaid:
Stars for my pillow there in the gloom,—
Oak-roots arching about my head!

Stars, like daisies, shall rise through the earth,
Acorns fall round my breast that bled.
Children shall weave there a flowery chain,
Squirrels on acorn-hearts be fed:—

Fruit of the traveller-heart of me,
Fruit of my harvest-songs long sped:
Sweet with the life of my sunburned days
When the sheaves were ripe, and the apples red.

Reading of "The Traveller-Heart"

Commentary on "The Traveller-Heart"

The speaker muses on the efficacy of tradtional burial.

First Stanza: Sticking With the Old-Fashioned Way

I would be one with the dark, dark earth:—
Follow the plough with a yokel tread.
I would be part of the Indian corn,
Walking the rows with the plumes o'erhead.

Unlike the unidentified man who claimed that being interred in a mausoleum was the "Stateliest Possible Manner of Interment," the speaker who has a traveler's heart finds the old-fashioned earth burial more suitable to his wandering ways.

Instead of resting in a cold marble facility, the speaker prefers to be "one with the dark, dark earth." But he will not rest in that earth, he plans to "follow the plough with a yokel tread." The speaker dramatizes the molecules of his decomposed body as they become part of the soil.

But the speaker's imagination continues as he becomes the nutrients in "part of the Indian corn." He fantasizes his wish to be "Walking the rows with the plumes o'erhead."

Second Stanza: Becoming One With the Earth

I would be one with the lavish earth,
Eating the bee-stung apples red:
Walking where lambs walk on the hills;
By oak-grove paths to the pools be led.

Again, the speaker stresses his desire to be "one with the lavish earth." He likes the idea of his atoms "eating the bee-stung apples" and "walking where lambs walk on the hills."

With the sheep and the bees, his particles will be steered through "oak-grove paths to pools" of water.

Third Stanza: Atoms Mixing With the Winds

I would be one with the dark-bright night
When sparkling skies and the lightning wed—
Walking on with the vicious wind
By roads whence even the dogs have fled.

On stormy nights with lightning in the skies, the speaker's atoms will mix with the "vicious wind." But he has the advantage over dogs, in that he can remain part of the scene from which "the dogs have fled."

So not only does the speaker anticipate being one with earth, but he will also be able to float up from it on occasion.

Fourth Stanza: Prefers to Be One With the Earth

I would be one with the sacred earth
On to the end, till I sleep with the dead.
Terror shall put no spears through me.
Peace shall jewel my shroud instead.

The speaker again repeats that he "would be one with the sacred earth." And he will remain this way until "[he] sleep[s] with the dead."

Here the speaker contemplates the state of his soul, and he understands that "Terror shall put no spears through me. / Peace shall jewel my shroud instead."

Fifth Stanza: No Despairing of Darkness

I shall be one with all pit-black things
Finding their lowering threat unsaid:
Stars for my pillow there in the gloom,—
Oak-roots arching about my head!

The speaker then fancies that when he is in his grave in the earth, he will be "one with all pit-black things."

But the speaker will not despair of the darkness, because he imagines he will have "stars for [his] pillow there in the gloom, — / Oak-roots arching about [his] head!"

Sixth Stanza: Life Goes on Around Him

Stars, like daisies, shall rise through the earth,
Acorns fall round my breast that bled.
Children shall weave there a flowery chain,
Squirrels on acorn-hearts be fed:—

The stars will be "daisies" and will "rise through the earth." Nuts from the oak tree will fall "round [his] breast."

Children will be present, "weav[ing] there a flowery chain," while squirrels eat the acorns.

Seventh Stanza: One With Earth to Cure Wanderlust

Fruit of the traveller-heart of me,
Fruit of my harvest-songs long sped:
Sweet with the life of my sunburned days
When the sheaves were ripe, and the apples red.

The speaker imagines his desire to be a wanderer will be fulfilled by being buried and becoming one with the dynamic earth. In death, his soul will reap the "fruit of the traveller-heart of me."

The speaker's body will become "fruit of [his] harvest-songs" and "sweet with the life of [his] sunburned days."

The speaker dramatizes his body's return to the soil, as his soul feasts on all the delights of sweetness and light the "sacred earth" and the after-death experience can offer.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes