Section I: Lincoln the Reader


The writings that gave Lincoln greatest pleasure also gave direction to his native talent. He read, reread, and absorbed the poetic language of the King James translation of the Bible. Lincoln revered Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for their imagery, metrical rhythms, emotional range, and psychological perception. From memory he could recite long passages from the Bard’s tragedies and histories. He appreciated the political oratory of his Whig hero Henry Clay, studied Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England and other legal texts, and mastered books of Euclidean logic. Together these influences confirmed his preference for words that appealed to reason, not mere emotion. In his favorite poem, William Knox’s “Mortality”—beginning and ending, “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?”—Lincoln saw the power of rhythmic repetition. And in the comic thrusts of contemporary humorists and satirists, such as Artemus Ward and David Ross Locke, he saw skill bordering on genius. All in all, Lincoln had no appetite for grandiloquence and pretension. Rather, he admired writing that was clear and cogent, and that, when spoken, was pleasing to the ear.


I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful.

— Abraham Lincoln, 17 August 1863