Vachel Lindsay

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What is the theme for Vachel Lindsay's poem "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight"?

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Any analysis of Vachel Lindsay's poem "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" should occur within the context of the poet's life. Lindsay was a native of the same region in Illinois that produced President Lincoln, and the poet actually resided in the same house as Lincoln's sister-in-law, further cementing Lindsay's interest in the president. Lindsay's respect for this tragic but heroic figure from American history is obvious. "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" is a homage to Lincoln and to the extraordinary burden of leadership Lincoln's term in office entailed. William Shakespeare's King Henry IV famously observed that "uneasy lies the head that wears a crown." Shakespeare's observation regarding the weight of responsibility involved in governing, especially during turbulent times, can easily and logically be applied to Abraham Lincoln.
Lindsay's poem essentially depicts the martyred president haunting the landscape, unable to "rest in peace" because of the terrible burdens that survived him. The poem's opening stanza suggests the admiration of the poet for the president:
A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black, 
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl 
Make him the quaint great figure that men love, 
The prairie-lawyer, master of us all. 
The stanzas that follow emphasize the turbulence that continues to plague humanity long after Lincoln's assassination. The dead president cannot rest peacefully because the world remains torn apart. Lindsay wrote his poem at the outset of World War I, which would involve unimaginable levels of brutality and inhumanity. Such lines as "He thinks on men and kings. Yea, when the sick world cries, how can he sleep," and "It breaks his heart that kings must murder still, That all his hours of travail here for men / Seem yet in vain" strongly suggest a figure from the past deeply troubled even in death with the senseless violence that continues to plague the world. Lincoln's tenure in office was, as everybody knows, dominated by the issue of slavery and the outbreak of civil war. No American president before or since has been forced to confront such a horrendous development as that which faced Lincoln, and Lindsay acknowledges the enormous weight of responsibility that Lincoln carried on his shoulders. The theme of "Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight" seems to be the poet's lament that a figure of Lincoln's decency and stature was desperately needed at the time the poem was written, and that Lincoln's desire for peace and justice continued to remain unrequited.

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This poem is about the hard work of an American public figure, but it also needs to be read in its historical context. Havel was a dissident in the former Soviet bloc country, Czechoslovakia, and this poem is in part a reminder of the hard work and determination of digging in and seeing a revolution through.

Notice the stanza:

He cannot rest until a spirit-dawn

Shall come;—the shining hope of Europe free:

A league of sober folk, the Workers' Earth,

Bringing long peace to Cornland, Alp and Sea.


Some time after this poem was written, Havel would become the president of the Czech Republic.

To discuss: what are the politics of speaking to an American hero, and of speaking to Abraham Lincoln in particular in this Czech poem. What analogy does that make between American slaves and the Czech people?

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