he had been standing
shadowy deck formless boat
as it rushed, he woke
The gaunt man, Abraham Lincoln, woke one morning
From a new dream that yet was an old dream
For he had known it many times before
And, usually, its coming prophesied
Important news of some sort, good or bad,
Though mostly good as he remembered it.
He had been standing on the shadowy deck
Of a black formless boat that moved away
From a dim bank, into wide, gushing waters–
River or sea, but huge–and as he stood,
The boat rushed into darkness like an arrow,
Gathering speed–and as it rushed, he woke.
He found it odd enough to tell about
That day to various people, half in jest
And half in earnest–well, it passed the time
And nearly everyone had some pet quirk,
Knocking on wood or never spilling salt,
Ladders or broken mirrors or a Friday,
And so he thought he might be left his boat,
Especially now, when he could breathe awhile
With Lee surrendered and the war stamped out
And the long work of binding up the wounds
Not yet begun–although he had his plans
For that long healing, and would work them out
In spite of all the bitter-hearted fools
Who only thought of punishing the South
Now she was beaten.
But this boat of his.
He thought he had it.
“Johnston has surrendered.
It must be that, I guess–for that’s about
The only news we’re waiting still to hear.”
He smiled a little, spoke of other things.
That afternoon he drove beside his wife
And talked with her about the days to come
With curious simplicity and peace.
Well, they were getting on, and when the end
Came to his term, he would not be distressed.
They would go back to Springfield, find a house,
Live peaceably and simply, see old friends,
Take a few cases every now and then.
Old Billy Herndon’s kept the practice up,
I guess he’ll sort of like to have me back.
We won’t be skimped, we’ll have enough to spend,
Enough to do–we’ll have a quiet time,
A sort of Indian summer of our age.
He looked beyond the carriage, seeing it so,
Peace at the last, and rest.
They drove back to the White House, dressed and ate,
Went to the theatre in their flag-draped box.
The play was a good play, he liked the play,
Laughed at the jokes, laughed at the funny man
With the long, weeping whiskers.
The time passed.
The shot rang out. The crazy murderer
Leaped from the box, mouthed out his Latin phrase,
Brandished his foolish pistol and was gone.
Lincoln lay stricken in the flag-draped box.
Living but speechless. Now they lifted him
And bore him off. He lay some hours so.
Then the heart failed. The breath beat in the throat.
The black, formless vessel carried him away.
On the anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, 248 years ago.
This passage is taken from John Brown’s Body by Stephen Vincent Benét.
According to Wikipedia, John Brown’s Body (1928) is an epic American poem written by Stephen Vincent Benét. Its title references the radical abolitionist John Brown, who raided the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia in October 1859. He was captured and hanged later that year. Benét’s poem covers the history of the American Civil War. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1929. It was written while Benét lived in Paris after receiving a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1926.