The Ballad of the Bear Hunt


Lincoln adored poetry and began composing poems in his teens. He remained an avid reader and writer of verse throughout his life; his last documented poem was written in 1863. He wrote this vivid and comic poem about a bear hunt a month after his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. It may well be “the third canto” that he mentioned in his letter to Andrew Johnston on 25 February 1847 (shown nearby). Johnston’s reason for not selecting this ballad for publication with Lincoln’s other poem in the Quincy Whig remains unclear. The fourth stanza on the right-hand page reads But who did this, and how to trace / What’s true from what’s a lie, / Like lawyers, in a murder case / They stoutly argufy.

The tall fleet cur, with deep-mouthed voice, Now speeds him, as the wind; While half-grown pup, and short-legged fice, Are yelping far behind- And fresh recruits are dropping in To join the merry corps: With yelp and yell,—a mingled din— The woods are in a roar- And round, and round the chace now goes, The world’s alive with fun; Nick Carter’s horse, his rider throws, And more, Hill drops his gun- Now sorely pressed, bear glances back, And lolls his tired tongue; When as, to force him from his track, An ambush on him sprung- Across the glade he sweeps for flight, And fully is in view- The dogs, new-fired, by the sight, Their cry, and speed, renew- The foremost ones, now reach his rear, He turns, they dash away; And circling now, the wrathful bear, They have him full at bay- At top of speed, the horse men come, All screaming in a row, “Whoop! Take him Tiger- Seize him Drum.” Bang,—bang—the rifles go- And furious now, the dogs he tears, And crushes in his ire- Wheels right and left, and upward rears, With eyes of burning fire- But leaden death is at his heart, Vain all the strength he plies. And, spouting blood from every part, He reels, and sinks, and dies- And now a dinsome clamor rose, ’Bout who should have his skin; Who first draws blood, each hunter knows, This prize must always win- But who did this, and how to trace What’s true from what’s a lie, Like lawyers, in a murder case They stoutly argufy. Aforesaid fice, of blustering mood, Behind, and quite forgot, Just now emerging from the wood, Arrives upon the spot- With grinning teeth, and up-turned hair— Brim full of spunk and wrath, He growls, and seizes on dead bear, And shakes for life and death- And swells as if his skin would tear, And growls and shakes again; And swears, as plain as dog can swear, That he has won the skin-      
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) “The Bear Hunt,” Springfield, ca. 6 September 1846 The Morgan Library & Museum, purchased by Pierpont Morgan, 1905; MA 229.1