Undoing as Remaking: How Abraham Lincoln Drew Poetry and Power from His Suicidal Depression
Life-affirming inspiration from a man who knew intimately “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.”
By Maria Popova
“I am now the most miserable man living,” Abraham Lincoln (February 12, 1809–April 15, 1865) wrote to his law partner three weeks before his thirty-third birthday. “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.”
Pensive, sensitive, and compassionate by nature, Lincoln felt life deeply. As a child, he told his stepsister that an ant’s life is as sweet to the ant as ours is to us and ardently chided the other boys for setting sea turtles on fire with that unthinking cruelty children at play can have. As a teenager, he defied his family’s tradition of considering basic literacy sufficient education for their line of work, sneaking away from his farm duties to read and study, so that a cousin would later remember him as “very lazy… always reading — scribbling — writing — ciphering — writing poetry &c. &c.” As a young adult, he came to see himself as cursed with the “peculiar misfortune” of dreaming dreams too large not to explode with disappointment.
Five years after leaving his father’s farm, the first detonation of depression shook the young man’s world. His legal studies strained him beyond capacity. Reading day and night, he grew emaciated. Meanwhile, a typhoid epidemic swept the land with a tidal wave of death, taking with it the life of Ann Rutledge — a young woman who uniquely understood Lincoln’s sensitivity and about whom he had come to care deeply — so deeply that no one around them quite understood the nature of their bond, though generations have taken the liberty of qualifying it, manufacturing an entire romantic mythos around a brittle skeleton of spare facts.
Whatever the private reality of the relationship, it was in this period of strife and loss, surrounded by widespread death and stretched beyond his own creaturely limits, that Lincoln came to think seriously of suicide. The idea grew so intrusive, so actionable, that he no longer trusted himself to carry a pocket knife. Friends and neighbors watched his mental unraveling with growing concern, so alarmed to see him wander the woods aimlessly with his gun that they set up a suicide watch.
Lincoln lived. But from that point on, like Keats, like Tchaikovsky, he suffered frequent visitations of deadly despair, the character-shaping power of which Joshua Wolf Shenk explores in Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness (public library).
After that first rather public episode of suicidal depression, Lincoln learned to hide his heavy heart behind his famous humor, behind a facade of such cheerful levity that even those working most closely with him would never see him despondent or ill-tempered. But it spilled out obliquely, through the cracks of compassion: Reaching out to salve a friend’s savaging depression with his great gift of consolation, he wrote with a poignant familiarity of “that intensity of thought, which will some times wear the sweetest idea thread-bare and turn it to the bitterness of death.”
Unbeknownst to anyone, in the summer of his thirtieth year, Lincoln penned an intensely sorrowful poem titled “The Suicide’s Soliloquy,” printed anonymously in a small Whig paper in Illinois alongside advertisements for whale oil and French cologne. It would take scholars 139 years to identify his authorship. With its haunting story-framing epigraph and its dramatic narration by a fictional character, it was Lincoln’s way of safely rehearsing in the darkest recesses of his imagination what it might be like to enact the central pull of suicide — the tempting illusion that total self-erasure is the only way to terminate the mental anguish nothing else has allayed.
THE SUICIDE’S SOLILOQUY
The following lines were said to have been found near the bones of a man supposed to have committed suicide, in a deep forest, on the flat branch of the Sangamon, some time ago.
Here, where the lonely hooting owl
Sends forth his midnight moans,
Fierce wolves shall o’er my carcase growl,
Or buzzards pick my bones.
No fellow-man shall learn my fate,
Or where my ashes lie;
Unless by beasts drawn round their bait,
Or by the ravens’ cry.
Yes! I’ve resolved the deed to do,
And this the place to do it:
This heart I’ll rush a dagger through,
Though I in hell should rue it!
Hell! What is hell to one like me
Who pleasures never knew;
By friends consigned to misery,
By hope deserted too?
To ease me of this power to think,
That through my bosom raves,
I’ll headlong leap from hell’s high brink,
And wallow in its waves.
Though devils yell, and burning chains
May waken long regret;
Their frightful screams, and piercing pains,
Will help me to forget.
Yes! I’m prepared, through endless night,
To take that fiery berth!
Think not with tales of hell to fright
Me, who am damn’d on earth!
Sweet steel! come forth from your sheath,
And glist’ning, speak your powers;
Rip up the organs of my breath,
And draw my blood in showers!
I strike! It quivers in that heart
Which drives me to this end;
I draw and kiss the bloody dart,
My last — my only friend!
This blackest despair was more than a poetic image for Lincoln. Three years later, when another acute episode of depression subsumed him and he came to see himself as the most miserable man on Earth, he arrived at the ultimate equation:
To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better, it appears to me.
He did get better. He did remember what we so frequently and dangerously forget when pressed under the leaden lid of depression — that the light of being returns. Like any great artist of life, Lincoln learned to transmute his suffering into fuel for building a more beautiful and light-filled world, turning the private anguish of his suicidal depression into a powerful political metaphor to mobilize his nation’s spirit. “If destruction be our lot,” he declaimed in one of his most powerful speeches, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” (Whitman — who reverenced Lincoln as “the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality” — echoed the sentiment with redoubled conviction across the epoch-stride of the Civil War in his prescient essay Democratic Vistas: “America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without.”)
Living with his own depression, Lincoln understood intimately that what is true of the spirit of a person is true of the spirit of a people — our undoing always serves an invitation to learn new modes of making: making beauty, making meaning, making the life we want to live and the world we want to live it in.
Couple with two centuries of great writers — including Keats, Whitman, Thoreau, Carson, and Hansberry — on the surest salve for depression, then revisit Tim Ferriss on how he survived suicidal depression, Mary Oliver’s spare and splendid antidote to melancholy, William Styron’s classic interior tour of what depression is really like, and this tender illustrated meditation on what it takes to unblue our sadnesses.
Published December 3, 2020