*Post written by Jacqui Epley, an English 601 student, at the University of Southern Indiana.
Though he be a Humble Man
A Close Reading of Betsy Wells Hall’s “To the memory of our good President Abraham Lincoln”
It goes without saying that the death of President Abraham Lincoln is hailed as one of the worst tragedies to ever strike the American people. Revered as one of the best presidents in the country’s history, Lincoln’s legacy still lives on in his long list of accomplishments that he accumulated during his four years as president. But his life was cut tragically short on April 15, 1865 by John Wilkes Booth, a man with a deplorable hatred held against him, supposedly for his monetary policies regarding the Civil War. The aftermath of his shooting lead thousands of citizens to mourn his loss, from crying in the streets to anyone who would listen to suffering in silence within their own homes. Betsy Wells Hall, a citizen of New Harmony, Indiana during Lincoln’s presidency, chose to share her grief in a gut-wrenching poem dedicated to the president. In it, she details not only the heartbreak and loss felt by the entire country upon his death, but the ways in which the country admired and respected him.
Hall begins her poem with a sigh and a revelation: “Alas: Our language is too feeble ever to show/The light the depth can shadow of our nation’s woe” (1-2). For Hall, who consistently writes memoirs and poems, it is painfully difficult to find the words to describe the sorrow she feels at the news of President Lincoln’s death. “The nation’s woe” aligns with her feelings as the shadow of President Lincoln’s death grips the entire nation, leaving them in the dark about whom they would turn to in this dark hour. Hall goes on to accentuate this sorrow, reciting “It seemed that liberty with him received a blow/For even the goddess draped her head in deepest woe” (11-12), possibly referring to Lady Liberty as the “goddess” who drapes her head in deepest sorrow that one of her “good sons” (5-6) of the country has had his life stolen from him at his highest political peak.
It is interesting to note that Hall refers to Lincoln as both a “father” and a “son,” depending on the context in which she is using his name. To the country, he is the nation’s “father,” guiding them through life and through justice: “He held the life boat helms amid lurid storm and of strife/With firm and steady hand to save our country’s life” (15-16). Here, Hall paints the picture of Lincoln as a man with a firm grip on the problems of the country, ready and able to guide the country through turbulent waters to take his citizens back to the safety of solid ground that is the country’s foundation. But when referring to Lincoln after his death, Hall sees him as a “son of earth” (5) who was “great in being good” (6). Even though he held a “father” status, he was still a “son” of Lady Liberty, tasked to do her job to uphold justice and the law in her name.
One of the more profoundly written lines of Hall’s poem refers to the work ethic of Lincoln and how he handled his fame: “No dazzling glory, no bright promethean flame/But gems of rarest worth wreath round his crown of fame” (7-8). Hall speaks of Lincoln as if he were a humble man, resisting glory in his reign over the country and shying away from the spotlight so he could do his job as president. She references Prometheus, a famous Greek Titan who stole fire from the gods in order to help mankind thrive. And although Prometheus did so for the greater good, Hall recognizes that he also basked in the praise and worship he received for doing such a kindness; she writes of Lincoln as resisting the urge to do the same. Instead, he is adorned by “gems of rarest worth” from his people, as if only the rarest of jewels are reserved for such a humble man.
Hall’s words resonated within the community and still do to new generations who come to read her works. She uses eloquent language in order to bare her soul and cope with her feelings, and in reading this poem it is evident that President Lincoln was loved by her and the nation. His memory and his accomplishments will forever be preserved by her heartbreak that flows through the lines of her poem.
When I came across this poem, I was captivated. I have always loved the history that surrounds the Civil War and President Lincoln, as well as admired what Lincoln did for this country. Never one to have a “political sense,” it was easy to read this poem for what it was: a story of heartbreak. I chose the close reading because I am not very “creative” when it comes to writing; I like facts and looking closely at texts to find the deeper meanings behind them. This poem seemed like it had the perfect language and flow to do such a close reading.