Professor examines Lincoln’s poetry

Sairah Aslam | Staff Writer


“Abraham Lincoln / his hand and pen / he will be good but / god knows When” were the first words that Faith Barrett, an associate English professor at Duquesne University, saw on the Library of Congress webpage dedicated to the amateur poetry written by the man himself.

An editor had contacted Barrett, requesting that she contribute to a book, a collection of essays about Abraham Lincoln. When Barrett came across Abraham Lincoln’s relationship with poetry, she knew she had to write about it. As a professor of 19th century American literature and creative writing, with an emphasis on poetry, the topic was right up her alley. Barrett had already written and edited, two separate books about American Civil War poetry.

As she began her research, Barrett said she was “struck by how avid a reader of poetry he was and by how so many people wrote poetry about him and sent it to him while he was serving [in the government].”

Barrett said that part of her fascination with Lincoln’s works was due to the fact that “scholars haven’t really looked at Lincoln’s poetry much at all in the past. They are much more interested in his political rhetoric, his speeches.”

But through his poetry, Barrett could trace the development and tendencies of the actual man behind the legend throughout various stages of life, from the “funny, quirky little poems” he wrote as a child, to the “bawdy, humorous, sex-oriented poetry he wrote in his young 20s” to the “beautiful, Romantic poetry” he wrote in his 30s when he visited Indiana and the graves of his close relatives who were buried there. Eventually, Lincoln even published poems anonymously to protect against possible political repercussions — though they have since been linked to him by historians on numerous occasions.

To Barrett, it was clear that Lincoln used poetry “to demonstrate to the world … that he has become literate, he has become a man of words, a man of education.” Lincoln’s poetry is nothing extraordinary, she acknowledges, but his poetry and his writings do express some admirable qualities.

Barrett admires “his versatility — he could talk equally well to the well-to-do and the working-class” and his ease as “a jokester comfortable with joking at his own expense”.

Barrett said that the project was “unexpectedly so absorbing and interesting … definitely one of my favorites.”

Next up, she will be studying the role of poetry in community building among African-Americans in the 19th century, with a special focus on George Moses Horton, a slave who lived and worked at the University of North Carolina and, on the side, wrote love poetry on behalf of white men who would pay him for help in wooing their love interests.