‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ is a poem by American poet Vachel Lindsay. It was published in 1914 during World War I. In this poem, the poet presents Abraham Lincoln’s spirit walking the streets of Springfield, Illinois, having awakened from his eternal sleep. For the tragedies of the modern world happening during that time, he can’t remain silent though he is dead. He is restless at the same time thinking about what he can do in that critical situation. However, at the time of writing this poem, Vachel Lindsay was troubled by the sights of blood and death in World War I.
‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay depicts the “mourning figure” of Abraham Lincoln restlessly pacing down the streets of Springfield, Illinois. He is in his usual black suit, top-hat, and a plain shawl. Being puzzled by the contemporary devastation caused by WWI, Lincoln broods upon mankind with his head bowed down with the weight of pensive thoughts. He can’t rest until there is a new dawn of hope and the statesmen fuelling the war come out of their maddening intoxication.
‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay consists of eight rhyming quatrains. Lindsay uses a regular rhyme scheme in this poem. The rhyme scheme of the poem is ABAB and it goes on like this. Vachel Lindsay was famous for his singing poetry. Henceforth there is song-like quality in this poem. However, the overall poem is composed of iambic pentameter with a few variations. There are metrical variations such as trochees and spondees in the poem.
‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay begins with a metaphor in “mourning figure”. It’s a reference to the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. There is an alliteration in “well-worn stones”. This phrase also contains a metonymy. Moreover, there is an allusion to Lincoln’s title, the “prairie lawyer” and his workmanship associated with this title in this poem. Apart from that, there is a climax in “He thinks on men and kings”. Thereafter, the poet uses a personification and invests the world with the idea of mourning or crying. Along with that, there is an anaphora in the same stanza. However, the poet uses a rhetorical question at the end of the poem.
‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay presents several important themes such as war, peace, retrospection, grief, and depression. The most important theme of the poem is war. Due to the restlessness caused by World War I, the poet thinks as if the spirit of Abraham Lincoln might have woken up from his eternal sleep. Another important aspect of the poem is peace. Through this poem, the poet advocates for peace by alluding to the imaginary reaction of Lincoln. However, the themes of grief and depression are there in the poem, in the description of the expressions of Abraham Lincoln. Apart from that, the lines, “He lingers where his children used to play,/ Or through the market, on the well-worn stones” represent the theme of retrospection.
The tone of ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay is pensive, sad, thoughtful, and emotive. At first, there is a sense of tension and awe in the speaker’s tone after seeing the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. Thereafter, his tone changes into that of respect and admiration. However, in the end, the tone again becomes sorrowful, depressing, and gloomy as he isn’t sure about when the war will end.
Analysis, Stanza by Stanza
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.
‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay describes the setting of the poem in the first stanza. It is at midnight and the place is Springfield, Illinois. Here, in this little town, the speaker sees a mourning figure walking restlessly near the old courthouse. He places his feet up and down as if something is causing him mental trouble. It is “thing of state” or the war that makes the eternal figure of Abraham Lincoln pensive. However, the speaker says it is “portentous” or an ominous sign to see the ghost of Lincoln at midnight. His appearance has some significance behind it.
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 second stanza of ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay, the speaker says one can see Lincoln’s out-worldly figure wandering by his homestead and in shadowed yards. He lingers where his children used to play. Sometimes he walks through the market on the old streets. He stalks in this manner until dawn when “the dawn-stars burn away”. However, in this section, the poet describes the peacefulness of the past in contrast to the contemporary world ridden by World War I.
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.
Thereafter, in ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay, the speaker describes the “prairie-lawyer”. According to him, he looks just like he was before. He is in his old suit, the famous high top-hat, and wearing a plain worn shawl. The description hints at Lincoln’s humbleness and simplicity. For having such a lowly demeanor people love him. Lincoln was also great in his career. He was famous for the title of “prairie-lawyer”. According to the poet, he is the “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 fourth stanza of ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay says why he is here. As he can’t sleep upon his hillside grave due to the contemporary situation, he has awakened from his eternal sleep “as in times before”. Those who toss and lie awake for long at night can see Lincoln’s spirit lingering down the road. However, in this section, the poet associates his restlessness and anxiety with the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. Moreover, the speaker says he breathes deeply whenever he sees the spirit of Lincoln passing the door at midnight.
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.
In the fifth stanza of ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’, Vachel Lindsay depicts what Lincoln might have done if he were alive. He imagines Lincoln with his head bowed down thinking of the suffering of men and the audacity of rulers. Moreover, the poet says when the sick world or the people living in it (an example of metonymy), how great men like Abraham Lincoln can sleep even if he is dead. Thereafter the poet using hyperbole depicts the aftermath of war. People are terrified and have nothing to do despite weeping and peasants fight among themselves without any reason. These are references to the breakdown of the agricultural economy and the death of closed ones consecutively.
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.
Moreover, in ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’, the speaker says the sins of the “war-lords” or statesmen involved with World War burn Lincoln’s heart. Once he was a statesman and served for the best of his country during the American Civil War. But, during 1914, leaders of contesting nations showed no mercy and fuelled the harangue of war. He can see the “dreadnaughts” or the machinery of war scouring everywhere. Seeing the bitterness, folly, and pain of mankind, Lincoln feels restless and burdened as he can do nothing in this situation.
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.
In the seventh stanza of ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay, the speaker says Lincoln cannot rest until there comes spirited dawn. Here, “spirit-dawn” is a symbol of hope and peace. Lincoln hopes that one day Europe will be free from the grip of such wars. There will be a political association or league of sober folk. It means they won’t be intoxicated with violence and bloodshed. The earth will be a peaceful place to live on for the workers who keep the machinery of progress in motion. Lincoln will be happy if there is “long peace” everywhere, be it the Cornland or plains, Alps or the hills, and the 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?
The last stanza of ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay presents the poet’s anxiety and pessimism about the future. The speaker says, all his travail for men seems meaningless. As men will continue killing others ruthlessly. In the end, the poet asks who will bring peace to the world. Thus, Abraham Lincoln can again return to his eternal sleep. However, there is an anticipation in the last line. The poet thinks the spirit of violence never dies, hence it will return yet in different forms. So, the great spirits like Lincoln have to stay awake as this heinous cycle never stops. It evolves through the ages but spills blood that is always red!
‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay was written during World War I in 1914. The poem was published in Louis Untermeyer’s anthology, “Modern American Poetry” in 1919. Hence, there is a direct reference to the effect of World War I on people and society in this poem. Moreover, the poet also throws light into the life of the late American President Abraham Lincoln in the poem. Here, the poet projects the greatness and humbleness of Lincoln. Moreover, how he might have felt if he were alive during World War I, is the main idea of the poem. In other words, Lindsay portrayed how he felt at that time through the association of Abraham Lincoln’s ghost.
Like ‘Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight’ by Vachel Lindsay, here is a list of a few poems that similarly talks written during World War I and describe how it affected the modern world in the early 20th century.
- Repression of War Experience by Siegfried Sassoon – In this poem, the poet talks about his experiences in WWI that had a long impact on his memory.
- The Call by Robert Service – Here, the poet expresses many of the feelings he had of the war that might benefit others.
- Spring Offensive by Wilfred Owen – Here, Wilfred Owen, one of the best British wartime poets, presents an image of the battlefield and what happens during a war, in reality.
- Happy Accidents by Owen Sheers – This poem explores a simultaneous narrative of a war photographer taking photos of a battle and a teenage boy developing them.
You can read about 10 of the Best War Poems here.