Sunday, February 13, 2011

Lincoln: the poet, the depressed, the president

Abraham Lincoln’s melancholy is a well-known modern fact. In 2006 Joshua Wolf Shenk brought Lincoln’s depression in the spot light when he wrote "Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness.” It’s a book that addresses Lincoln’s enduring sadness and how it affected his presidency.  Lincoln’s depression was so powerful that even modern scholars, who lack psychiatry training, diagnosed him with clinical depression. A not-so-well known fact, though, is that Lincoln was a poet. Below is Lincoln’s poem, “The Suicide’s Soliloquy.”

Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcass growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!
Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never know;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?
To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.
Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.
Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!
Sweet steel! come forth from our your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!
I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last—my only friend!

Only a poet deep-seeded in misery could write something so powerful. So the question I put forth is: what if Lincoln was medicated? Lincoln’s greatness is equal to his sadness, so if one was to become lower would the other follow suit?

Lincoln is a good example of the power that depression can wield. It is my opinion that Abraham Lincoln would not be an American hero without his depression. This was his motivation. He, like many artists, sought out knowledge to fill his empty heart. There is a saying my poetry teacher once taught me, “Keeping your mind high on knowledge will stop your heart from sinking.” With all my heart I believe this to be true. Lincoln is not the only great statesman to battle with mental illness. Winston Churchill also suffered from depression that caused him to drink excessively. What would happen if he was medicated?

I want to iterate that I am not condemning medication for depression. I think depression medications  help people to enjoy a better quality of life and in my opinion, it is not always bad. Sometimes depression can lead people to do great things. To everyone who feels lamentation and drowns themselves in sorrow, ask yourself: "Is my depression worsening the type of person I am or bettering it? Am I happy with that?"

The truth is we will never know what type of person Lincoln would be if he was medicated for his melancholy. A lot of his true personality is up for debate. Despite Mr. Shenk’s insightful perspective, I believe the poet Carl Sandburg described Lincoln best in his poem “The People, Yes,”
He was a mystery in smoke and flags
Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
Yes to the hopes of government
Of the people by the people for the people,
No to debauchery of the public mind,
No to personal malice nursed and fed,
Yes to the Constitution when a help,
No to the Constitution when a hindrance
Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
Each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
Must I choose for my own sustaining light
To bring me beyond the present wilderness?
     Lincoln? Was he a poet?
     And did he write verses?
“I have not willingly planted a thorn
     in any man’s bosom.”
I shall do nothing through malice: what
     I deal with is too vast for malice.”
Death was in the air.
So was birth.

-Matthew Harriett-

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