Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Lincoln's Letter to a War Widow: Legacy of American Letters

Executive Mansion,

Washington, Nov. 21, 1864.

Dear Madam,

I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.

Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

This letter, while read and revered in American literature, is posted as an example of pure, simple, and concise English, in Brasenose College, Oxford.

The letter avoids overwhelming rhetorical flourishes while relying on simple, stately alliteration. Phrases like "assuage the anguish" and "loved and lost"  indicated a concentrated respect on these elements describing the terrible emotions which shook the grieving mother, respecting the character of the sons who died in battle.

Every word counts, every word says what the writer intended to communicate, without hint of ambiguity, irony, or sarcasm. His conciseness with language invites rich metaphor, "sacrifice upon the altar of freedom" without directing attention to the writer. The sacrifice of this perhaps unwilling mother has contributed to a far greater cause, one which a sovreign providence "our Heavenly Father"  will recognize with divine respect. Lincoln touches on spiritual matters, but he does not proselytize, nor does he deign to inform or dismiss the recipient's lost with fatuous words of pious comfort.

The following sentence communicates the failure of the President's communication with prepared, unpretentious poise:

"I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming."

"Weak"  and "fruitless", are reminiscent of the the New Testament Book of Galatians, in which we are falled to walk in the Spirit, not try by our own efforts to live glorious lives. "Beguile" is another term with Biblical resonance, one in which the Apostle Paul warns his readers not to let the Devil deceive them away from the simplicity (and the liberality" that is Christ. This rugged, supple simplicity praises the fallen soldier without appraising their valor or upbraiding the enemy who felled them. His smooth language soothes the weary war widow with achieving and renown for the writer.

"very sincerely and respectfully," the letter writer had provided a small, yet great, condolence to a mother who deserves recognition, not a reading; the knowledge that someone of highest authority, both on Earth and in Heaven, who cares and commands concern without overstating the case.

This piece of war correspondence invites peace to a mother whose life has been torn asunder in pieces, sharing as little as possible so as not to offend the ineffable loss which afflicts this childless mother.

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