“The Prairie-Lawyer, Master of Us All”: Vachel Lindsay’s “When Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight”

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One of the better known poems from Vachel Lindsay’s The Congo and Other Poems is his poem about the legacy of President Abraham Lincoln amidst the onset of World War One in Europe. The poem is entitled “Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight.” Lindsay, born in Springfield, Illinois in 1879 and a popular poet of the early twentieth century, had, like other Midwestern writers of the time, a strong interest in Abraham Lincoln. President Lincoln spent many years in Springfield. It was the last place where he resided before entering the White House.

World War One, or The Great War of 1914-1918 as it is also known, began 100 years ago this past August. The United States didn’t enter the war until April of 1917, but Americans couldn’t ignore the calamity that was happening overseas. The war produced a wealth of literature in a variety of nations, much of the best of it appearing in the years after the conflict, although a remarkable body of poetry was produced during the conflict by noted English soldier-poets such as Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves.

First world war

“Abraham Lincoln Walks At Midnight” is notable not only for being one of Lindsay’s better known poems, but also as a memorable early American response to the debacle of WWI. Lindsay’s belief in democracy as the best hope for humanity is also a noteworthy aspect of the poem.

Here is the poem:

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 of 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 dreadnoughts 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?

—-Vachel Lindsay, 1914.

Patrick Kerin

Source:

The Congo and Other Poems by Vachel Lindsay, edited by Shane Weller,Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1992

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