Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘William Herndon

The dark and indefinite shore

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Abraham Lincoln with his son, Tad

The dreams and premonitions of Lincoln are also a part of this drama, to which they contribute an element of imagery and tragic foreshadowing that one finds sometimes in the lives of poets—Dante’s visions or Byron’s last poem—but that one does not expect to encounter in the life of a political figure: Lincoln’s recurrent dream of a ship on its steady way to some dark and indefinite shore, which seems to prophesy that the war would be going well, since it had always been followed by a victory; his ominous hallucination, after the election of 1860, when, lying exhausted on a sofa, he saw in a mirror on the wall a double reflection of his face, with one image paler than the other, which his wife had taken as a sign that he would be elected to a second term but that he would not live to complete it…On his way back to Washington from his visit to Richmond just after the city’s surrender, he read to his companions on the boat the scene from Macbeth that contains the lines:

                                  Duncan is in his grave;
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well;
Treason has done his worst: nor steel, nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing,
Can touch him further.

The night before Lincoln was murdered, he dreamed again of the ship approaching its dark destination. He had foreseen and accepted his doom; he knew it was part of the drama. He had in some sense imagined this drama himself—had even prefigured Booth and the aspect he would wear for Booth when the latter would leap down from the Presidential box crying, “Sic semper tyrannis!” Had he not once told Herndon that Brutus was created to murder Caesar and Caesar to be murdered by Brutus? And in that speech made so long before to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, he had issued his equivocal warning against the ambitious leader, describing this figure with a fire that seemed to derive as much from admiration as apprehension—that leader who would certainly rise among them and “seek the gratification of [his] ruling passion,” that “towering genius” who would “burn for distinction, and, if possible…have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.” It was as if he had not only foreseen the drama but had even seen all around it with a kind of poetic objectivity, aware of the various points of view that the world must take toward its protagonist. In the poem that Lincoln lived, Booth had been prepared for, too, and the tragic conclusion was necessary to justify all the rest.

Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore

Written by nevalalee

February 20, 2017 at 8:19 am

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