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Thursday, Feb. 10, 2005 12:10 pm

The president’s voice

Abraham Lincoln, 1860, watercolor on ivory, by John Henry Brown
From the National Portrait Gallery/Smithsonian Institution

What if Abraham Lincoln had set to verse his thoughts on the events and people who shaped his extraordinary life?

Writer and professor Dan Guillory asked that question and, a couple of years ago, began a series of poems about Lincoln’s life.

Written from Lincoln’s perspective, the poems range from mundane subjects to significant events in the president’s life — from berry-picking and courtship to his tragic death.

A longtime Illinois Times contributor and former drama critic, Guillory is professor emeritus of English at Millikin University in Decatur and the author of four books, including Living with Lincoln: Life and Art in the Heartland. He has made presentations on Lincoln at Michigan State University, the Newberry Library in Chicago, the Illinois State Historical Society, and the Vachel Lindsay Home.

Guillory’s latest work, Images of America: Decatur, is among the books that will be honored at the Illinois Authors Book Fair on March 4 and 5 at the Illinois State Library.

A selection of Guillory’s earlier Lincoln poems was published in the Feb. 12, 2004, edition of Illinois Times. Those poems are available at www.illinoistimes.com. — Editor


Blackberrying with Willie, Summer 1855

William Wallace Lincoln was born on Dec. 21, 1850, in Springfield and died Feb. 20, 1862, in the White House. He was, by all accounts, the most literate and intellectual of the Lincoln children — the favorite of his father and mother, who grieved deeply over his death. Willie received the same permissive upbringing as the other Lincoln boys, and he was indulged and cherished. Lincoln often took him and the other boys to play in the fields and woodlots behind (due east) of their property at Eighth and Jackson streets, where the family also kept their milk cow. Mary Ann Todd was rarely called by her full name because it might have been confused with that of her younger sister, Ann Marie. The future Mrs. Lincoln did learn most of the household arts, including pie-making, for the president-to-be had an apparent sweet tooth.

Mary Ann would have a pie and the vines
Grow faster than childhood, the red fruit
Darkens and sweetens like father-love.
Little Willie is purpled with berry juice,
Our bucket emptied of every fruit.

On the way home, the double-horned moon
Points through the sycamores, it is ours
This marked moment of man and boy,
Whether Mary Ann has her pie — or not.


“Love is Eternal” — November 4, 1842

Mary Ann Todd and Abraham Lincoln courted passionately during the latter months of 1840, but Lincoln suddenly broke off the engagement (or mutual understanding) on New Year’s Day 1841, plunging himself into a fit of depression — or “hypochondria,” as he called it — for which he received medical treatment. Much later, through the agency of Simeon Francis, editor of the Sangamo Journal, the couple found a safe meeting place, and the relationship was resumed. They were married hastily and with no advance notice — even to Mary’s censorious family — on the evening of Nov. 4, 1842, with the Rev. Charles Dresser, an Episcopalian minister who later sold them his house at Eighth and Jackson streets, performing the wedding ceremony. Lincoln had visited Chatterton’s Jewelry Store, on the west side of the square, to buy a wedding ring with the inscription “A.L. to Mary, Nov. 4, 1842: Love is Eternal.” Lincoln must have been one of the first customers of jeweler/silversmith George Chatterton, because Chatterton and his brother Charles had opened the store on Oct. 28, 1842, only a week before the wedding.

Lincoln’s passionate love of books — law books in particular — was well established in New Salem and during his early years in Springfield, after April 15, 1837, when he moved in with Joshua Speed, whose store was close to Chatterton’s establishment.

Sweet Mary, I am schoolboy at your side, student
Of the bound volume abundant with information.

The theme, the meaning develops as a series
Of impressions under my fingertips.

A little crease here, some dog-eared flap —
Gently thumbing the well-tooled spine.

There is reassurance in the familiar —
Sadness at the inevitable ending.

And perfect pleasure, reading it again
As if for the very first time.


Sleeping with Speed

In his recent book The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, C.A. Tripp argues that Lincoln was a homosexual, partly because he shared his bed with other men. This practice was inevitable in the pioneer days of Illinois, largely because there were not enough beds to go around, and so travelers and boarders were forced to sleep together. Lincoln arrived in Springfield on April 15, 1837, and promptly arranged lodgings with Joshua Speed, who ran a store at Fifth and Washington streets. Lincoln was penniless at the time, but they quickly became intimate friends. After Speed returned to his native Louisville in January 1841, the two men stayed in touch; this period marked the break-up of Mary and Abraham, and Lincoln sorely required a confidant. He spent three weeks with Speed in Louisville between late August and early September 1841. Speed was perhaps the only real friend to Abraham Lincoln, a man who was inscrutable and aloof all of his life.

Above the pickle barrels, the crocks of salted pork,
The bolts of calico cloth, the shovels, scythes,
And agricultural tools, we make our humble bed.

The usual things — women, money, the weather,
The existence of a just God, slavery, marriage —
A lot of hot air and occasional gas.

This is friendship, sharing a too-small cover,
Giving up your painful secrets, waiting in sleep
For reassurance as pure as morning light.


Butler’s Ambrotype, August 13, 1860

In the summer of 1860, while Lincoln was campaigning for the presidency, Philadelphia artist John Henry Brown was hired to paint an official campaign portrait. He described his visit to Springfield in these words: “We [Brown and Lincoln] walked together from the executive chamber to a daguerrean establishment. I had half a dozen ambrotypes [positive image on a glass plate] taken of him before I could get one to suit me.” The ambrotypist/daguerrotypist mentioned here is Springfield’s Preston Butler, who photographed Lincoln on Aug. 13, 1860. The ambrotype shows Lincoln with atypically neat hair, combed smoothly over his forehead. Campaign badges were made from the photograph and sold for 10 cents each or $6 per thousand.

It’s all very personal, you know.
You blink, and the camera blinks back
At you, the rolling eye returns
To haunt you, even the crushed satin
Necktie is honored in timelessness.

For once, they got the hair right.
I’m never this neat in Real Life.
But this isn’t real — I’m being
Sold like a piece of soap
Or a view of Niagara Falls.

No matter, for this is America
And I always wanted to become
The first truly modern President.


Billy the Barber, February 10, 1861

William de Fleurville, or William Florville, was Lincoln’s barber for 24 years, his neighbor for a time, and the guardian of the Lincoln home when the family was in Washington. Born in Haiti in 1807, he immigrated to Baltimore in 1820 and learned the barbering trade. In 1831 he arrived in Springfield, and he set up shop in 1832. Successful and visible in the Springfield business community, Billy the Barber was also a flute and violin player, a considerable philanthropist in the growing frontier community, and a composer of seriocomic verses that he published in the Illinois State Journal: “Billy will always be found on the spot,/With razor keen and water smoking hot;/He’ll clip and dress your hair, and shave with ease/And leave no effort slack his friends to please.” His shop was on Adams Street, between Sixth and Seventh. Billy charged 15 cents to cut the hair of men and boys, 20 cents for girls. He cut Lincoln’s hair on Feb. 10, 1861, the day before Lincoln left for Washington. On Dec. 27, 1863, he wrote the president: “Tell taddy [sic] that his (and Willy’s) dog is alive and kicking . . . ” A coffle is a chained gang of prisoners or slaves.

Billy is mopping my face with a hot towel,
Stropping his straight razor, adjusting the chair,
And I gently slumber as this free black man
Scrapes eight inches of sharp surgical steel
Over the soap-covered vessels of my neck.

Once on the Ohio, I beheld a coffle of slaves.
Three men, two women, and a little girl.
The oldest man had white woolly hair
And his back crawled with gray, wormy
Scars, his eyes filled with the blankness
Of being sold downriver, how many,
How many, are still in coffles?

Billy tries to snip and dress my thatch,
A touch of pomade, a little wet combing,
I feel something like a pressure drop
Before a storm, a squeezed-down moment,
As if everyone suddenly started speaking
A different language or time angrily stopped.
It is the end of slavery. It is today. Is Now.

I tip him two bits, shake his hand,
Leaving as if nothing has happened
Walking down Seventh Street, utterly
Certain I will never pass this way again.


Jane’s Piano, December 1849

Jane Martin Johns was one of the most important early residents of Decatur and Macon County, as well as the author of Recollections, a personal memoir of the period, including anecdotes about Lincoln and many Civil War events. She met Lincoln on the very day she arrived in Decatur in December 1849, sorely in need of help unloading her precious piano, which was strapped down in a wagon in front of the Macon House (later the Revere House). Lincoln convinced Leonard Swett, a lawyer friend from Bloomington, to assist, and the two men somehow maneuvered the ungainly instrument into the hotel lobby. Jane rewarded the two young lawyers by treating them to dinner and playing some of the popular tunes of the day afterward, including “Old Dan Tucker.”

The law is a marble monument,
Ponderous and immovable.
But Jane’s piano is heavier
And makes sweeter music.
Is this the harmony I crave,
The sweet constitution of notes,
The sound of freedom
Unlocked from the keys
Like slaves unshackled
In a land as deaf as ours?

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