The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVI. Early National Literature, Part II; Later National Literature, Part I.

II. Poets of the Civil War I

§ 16. Lincoln

To civil life, too, belongs the supreme poetry that the war called forth, associated, for the most part, with the name of Lincoln. Stoddard’s Abraham Lincoln, Whitman’s When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloomed (not to be mentioned with the popular but less valuable O Captain! My Captain!), and Lowell’s Ode Recited at the Harvard Commemoration. Whitman had written not a few vivid descriptions of war scenes, and he stands alone among all the poets of his time in his noble freedom from partisanship, but his chanting was never elsewhere so rapt or melodious. Lowell, a fiery partisan, had in his second series of Biglow Papers applied his satirical powers to every step of the conflict, and had at times risen to thrilling elevation, as in Mr. Hosea Biglow to the Editor of The Atlantic Monthly, but in his Ode he outstripped himself and brought American civic poetry to its highest point. An intensely pacific people had the happiness to have poets who sang peace better than they had sung war, when they had won, even at the price of war, a peace which left them purged of slavery and still a nation.

Much of this verse has naturally lost its appeal, but its national and historical significance cannot be overlooked. As Stedman afterwards wrote:

  • One who underrates the significance of our literature, prose or verse, as both the expression and the stimulant of national feeling, as of import in the past and to the future of America, and therefore of the world, is deficient in that critical insight which can judge even of its own day unwarped by personal taste or deference to public impression. He shuts his eyes to the fact that at times, notably throughout the years resulting in the Civil War, this literature has been a “force.”