FEBRUARY 2013, by Diederik Oostdijk
Everyone shares his birthday with an assorted bunch of others, some known and many unknown, but I am happy to share mine with Abraham Lincoln. For years I have been fascinated by this lanky and eloquent American president who steered the United States through the divisive Civil War (1861-1865). It must be a combination of his poetic speeches and his tragic air that has held me spellbound. His “Gettysburg Address” and “Second Inaugural Address” are pure poetry: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds.”
As a true martyr, Lincoln died on Good Friday in 1865, after peace had already been declared. As a true believer, I went on a pilgrimage to Ford Theater in Washington D.C. where he was shot. Lincoln has always lived on in the American imagination, but lately there is a renewed interest in him because President Obama is also a disciple, and he has a similar elegance and articulacy as his Illinois predecessor. The new Steven Spielberg film, starring the superb Daniel Day-Lewis (son of the poet Cecil) introduces Lincoln to a new generation, with an epic grandeur that befits the sixteenth American President. The movie is based on a book “A Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” that happens to be one of Obama’s favorite books.
Yet it is Walt Whitman, that other “dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher,” who sang Lincoln’s praises most preciously, in “When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom’d.” I’ll only share a sampler as Whitman’s poem is almost as long as Spielberg’s film, in the faint hope that someone out there will study both gospels.
from: Walt Whitman, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”.
O western orb sailing the heaven,
Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk’d,
As I walk’d in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop’d from the sky low down as if to my side, (while the other stars all look’d on,)
As we wander’d together the solemn night, (for something I know not what kept me from sleep,)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch’d where you pass’d and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.
Sing on there in the swamp,
O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you,
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain’d me,
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.
O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?
Sea-winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I’ll perfume the grave of him I love.
O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?
Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.
Lo, body and soul—this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying tides, and the ships,
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light, Ohio’s shores and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover’d with grass and corn.
Lo, the most excellent sun so calm and haughty,
The violet and purple morn with just-felt breezes,
The gentle soft-born measureless light,
The miracle spreading bathing all, the fulfill’d noon,
The coming eve delicious, the welcome night and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.
Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.
Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.
O liquid and free and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul—O wondrous singer!
You only I hear—yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart,)
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.