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John Gould Fletcher: Lincoln


Like a gaunt, scraggly pine
Which lifts its head above the mournful sandhills;
And patiently, through dull years of bitter silence,
Untended and uncared for, starts to grow.

Ungainly, labouring, huge,
The wind of the north has twisted and gnarled its branches;
Yet in the heat of midsummer days, when thunderclouds ring the horizon,
A nation of men shall rest beneath its shade.

And it shall protect them all,
Hold everyone safe there, watching aloof in silence;
Until at last one mad stray bolt from the zenith
Shall strike it in an instant down to earth.


There was a darkness in this man; an immense and hollow darkness,
Of which we may not speak, nor share with him, nor enter;
A darkness through which strong roots stretched downwards into the earth
Towards old things:

Towards the herdman-kings who walked the earth and spoke with God,
Towards the wanderers who sought for they knew not what, and found their goal
    at last;
Towards the men who waited, only waited patiently when all seemed lost,
Many bitter winters of defeat;

Down to the granite of patience
These roots swept, knotted fibrous roots, prying, piercing, seeking,
And drew from the living rock and the living waters about it
The red sap to carry upwards to the sun.

Not proud, but humble,
Only to serve and pass on, to endure to the end through service;
For the ax is laid at the roots of the trees, and all that bring not forth
 good fruit
Shall be cut down on the day to come and cast into the fire.


There is a silence abroad in the land to-day,
And in the hearts of men, a deep and anxious silence;
And, because we are still at last, those bronze lips slowly open,
Those hollow and weary eyes take on a gleam of light.

Slowly a patient, firm-syllabled voice cuts through the endless silence
Like labouring oxen that drag a plow through the chaos of rude clay-fields:
“I went forward as the light goes forward in early spring,
But there were also many things which I left behind.

“Tombs that were quiet;
One, of a mother, whose brief light went out in the darkness,
One, of a loved one, the snow on whose grave is long falling,
One, only of a child, but it was mine.

“Have you forgot your graves? Go, question them in anguish,
Listen long to their unstirred lips. From your hostages to silence,
Learn there is no life without death, no dawn without sun-setting,
No victory but to him who has given all.”


The clamour of cannon dies down, the furnace-mouth of the battle is silent.    
The midwinter sun dips and descends, the earth takes on afresh its bright
But he whom we mocked and obeyed not, he whom we scorned and mistrusted,
He has descended, like a god, to his rest.

Over the uproar of cities,
Over the million intricate threads of life wavering and crossing,
In the midst of problems we know not, tangling, perplexing, ensnaring,
Rises one white tomb alone.

Beam over it, stars,
Wrap it round, stripes—stripes red for the pain that he bore for you—
Enfold it forever, O flag, rent, soiled, but repaired through your anguish;   
Long as you keep him there safe, the nations shall bow to your law.

Strew over him flowers:
Blue forget-me-nots from the north, and the bright pink arbutus
From the east, and from the west rich orange blossom,
And from the heart of the land take the passion-flower;

Rayed, violet, dim,
With the nails that pierced, the cross that he bore and the circlet,
And beside it there lay also one lonely snow-white magnolia,
Bitter for remembrance of the healing which has passed.


Public Domain. First published in Amy Lowell’s anthology Some Imagist Poets (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917). Composed in free verse on April 19, 1916, it has since been praised as one of the most notable poems written about Abraham Lincoln. In Tendencies in Modern American Poetry (Houghton Mifflin Company, 1917), Lowell, remarking on the poem, herself wrote “[g]ravely, like a funeral march, with serene steadfastness, like the hope of resurrection, the poem moves along, and the great darkness of the opening lines yields gradually to the lyric close.”


John Gould Fletcher (1886–1950) was born in Little Rock, Arkansas. The son of a cotton broker, he enrolled at Harvard University but left before receiving a degree. He began writing poetry during a trip to the West Coast in 1905. After his father died in 1906, leaving him an independent income, Fletcher moved to Italy and later settled in London. There, he met Ezra PoundAmy Lowell, and the other imagist poets. Although he initially declined Pound’s invitation to appear in his anthology Des Imagistes, Fletcher joined the imagist group after Amy Lowell assumed leadership in 1914. He published his first five poetry manuscripts, including The Dominant City (Max Goschen) and Fire and Wine (Grant Richards), in 1913. Fletcher went on to publish numerous poetry collections, including South Star (Macmillan, 1941), The Black Rock (Macmillan, 1928), Goblins and Pagodas (Houghton Mifflin, 1916), and Irradiations: Sand and Spray (Houghton Mifflin, 1915). He was also the author of an autobiography, Life Is My Song (Farrar & Rinehart, 1937), and a history of his native state, Arkansas (University of North Carolina Press, 1947). Fletcher returned to Arkansas in 1933. In 1938 he became the first Southern poet to win the Pulitzer Prize, for Selected Poems (Farrar & Rinehart, 1938). He died near his country home in Little Rock, Arkansas, on May 10, 1950. [adapted from poets.com published by the Academy of American Poets]

4 comments on “John Gould Fletcher: Lincoln

  1. johnlawsonpoet
    February 20, 2023

    Yikes! I’m as big a Lincoln fan as you’ll find, but even I feel a bit queasy about what I’ll call the Jesusization of what was, after all, someone who put his pants on one leg at a time. The poem interestingly–and consciously, I think–exemplifies the process by which history transmutes into myth.


    • Vox Populi
      February 20, 2023

      Thanks, John. We live in an age of desanctification. Almost all of my boyhood heroes have been toppled. I find it refreshing every now and then to remember why someone has been a hero to so many.


  2. Loranneke
    February 20, 2023

    “There was a darkness in this man; an immense and hollow darkness,
    Of which we may not speak, nor share with him, nor enter;
    A darkness through which strong roots stretched downwards into the earth
    Towards old things:” — (How beautifully written!)


    • Vox Populi
      February 20, 2023

      Yes, Fletcher was a major poet in his time.He won a Pulitzer and was praised by Eliot and others, but Fletcher is rarely read today. Strange how fleeting fame is.


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