On this day in 1863, Abraham Lincoln presented his Gettysburg Address. The occasion was the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the site of the Union army’s victory in the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-4, 1863. Lincoln was not the main speaker at the dedication; that position was given to the scholar and statesman Edward Everett, the best-known orator of the time. Everett spoke for approximately two hours; Lincoln, who took the podium at the end of the long ceremony, spoke for three minutes.
Lincoln’s address may have been short, but the words were certainly not short on impact. His 267-word speech has been called “the best-known monument of American prose” and Carl Sandburg, one of America’s great poets, called the Gettysburg Address “the great American poem” (1).
Although Lincoln’s address was a speech, it can be classified as a prose poem, a composition that is a hybrid of prose and poetry. Written in complete sentences, like prose, a prose poem nevertheless relies heavily on a variety of poetic elements that give the prose the sound and emotional impact of poetry.
Reading the speech aloud, you can hear a variety of poetic sound effects:
Consonance: for those who gave their lives that this nation might live.
Internal Rhyme: we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate
Alliteration: will little note nor long remember
But what makes the most impact in the speech is the harmony between Lincoln’s form and his content. Skillfully employing the rhetorical strategies he had acquired by reading Shakespeare and the King James Bible, Lincoln presents themes that are antithetical: birth and death. To bring balance and harmony to these opposing themes, he employs parallel structure, principally tricolon and anaphora.
Notice for example the opposites (antithesis) in the following sentence from the middle of the speech:
The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.
Lincoln was at Gettysburg to honor the dead, but his purpose was also to move the living by reminding them that the war was not just about the victory of the Union, it was rather about the survival of the nation. This theme of bringing harmony out of the chaos of war is echoed in the parallel syntax of Lincoln’s long final sentence. Notice, for example, the anaphora of the “that” clause and tricolon employing three parallel prepositional phrases:
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us
—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion
—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain
—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom
—and that government
of the people,
by the people,
for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Today’s Challenge: Two Voices
How would you break up the words, phrases, and clauses of “The Gettysburg Address” into a poem for two voices? Transform Lincoln’s prose poem into a poem for Two Voices. Paul Fleishman popularized this form in his book Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices (See September 5: Two Voices Day). Written to be read aloud by two people, poems for two voices are written in two columns. Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page. Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.
Play with the contrasts and the rhythms of Lincoln’s short speech to create your own unique version. As you write, practice with a partner to create the most dramatic possible performance. (Common Core Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. (2)
1-Willis, Gary. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America. New York: Simon & Shuster: 2006.
2-Lincoln, Abraham. The Gettysburg Address. 1863. Public Domain.