Thursday, May 13, 2004

Man, that Abe fellow could write!

Lynn Sislo links a Terry Teachout post that contrasts two bits of writing, both from the exact same source. The first is from Abraham Lincoln's first Inaugural Address, as originally written by William Seward:

"I close. We are not we must not be aliens or enemies but fellow countrymen and brethren….The mystic chords which proceeding from so many battle fields and so many patriot graves pass through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent of ours will yet again harmonize in their ancient music when breathed upon by the guardian angel of the nation."

Then, Terry gives the actual version as rewritten by President Lincoln himself:

"I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies….The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature."

Terry says that Lincoln's formulation is more elegant while Seward's is clunky; Lynn feels it's the reverse, referring to Lincoln's version as a "dumbed-down" variation of Seward's. For my part, I agree with Terry, and here are a couple of reasons why.

1. The difference in the first sentences. Seward writes, "I close", but Lincoln says "I am loth to close". This is essential to the theme of the whole speech; if we truly are "not enemies, but friends" -- or "fellow countrymen and brethren" -- then by making this simple alteration Lincoln is saying, "You are my friends, my brothers, my countrymen, and I do not want to leave your company." What Lincoln has done by changing Seward's words is to strengthen the overall theme of the address (i.e., that the United States is a Union that must not be pulled apart).

2. By pulling "We must not be enemies" into its own sentence, Lincoln amplifies the moral imperative implied by the preceding "We are not enemies, but friends". In one sentence he states what is the case; in the next, he states what must continue to be the case. This is missed in Seward's awkward formulation.

3. Seward takes a stab at a musical metaphor in that long blow of a sentence ending things, but it doesn't quite work. What "mystic chords" are these? What is this "ancient music" those chords produce? It's very unclear, but Lincoln strongly ties that metaphor back into his theme of Union.

4. Lincoln adds small clauses like "as they surely will be" which create a mood of optimism not present in the Seward.

5. The phrase "the better angels of our nature" implies a more active role for the citizenry in preserving the Union; Seward's formulation is a pretty passive one in which we rely on "the guardian angel of our nation". Lincoln preserves the image of angelic providence, but aligns it with the people whom he has already called "friends".

6. Finally, this is hard to gauge, but Lincoln's rewrite has better cadence for a bit of writing that is intended to be read aloud. That long sentence of Seward's has no natural breaking points, no obvious places where one thought ends and another begins, and it contains one clause that could seriously trip up a speaker ("...through all the hearts and all the hearths in this broad continent..."). Lincoln fixes this by changing that clause to add a single syllable (..."to every living heart and hearthstone...")

So, in Lincoln's formulation, I find a stronger statement of theme and a stronger relation of that theme to his intended audience, I find the imagery likewise recast to better reflect the theme of the address, and I find a better sense of rhythm and cadence. And all that in just three fewer words than in Seward's original, which is really a remarkable thing: just reading the two versions back-to-back, I got the impression that Seward's was significantly longer than Lincoln's. Not so.

In his post, Terry Teachout makes a musical metaphor to what Lincoln has done here, and I'd like to make another one. Any trained musician knows that a complex passage of fast music will actually sound faster if played cleanly at a slower tempo than if it is played sloppily at a brisker tempo. Here, Abraham Lincoln accomplishes the literary equivalent.

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