November 19:  Gettysburg Address Day

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.


July 29:  Defeat of the Spanish Armada Day

Today is the anniversary of Britain’s victorious sea battle against Spain’s “Invincible Armada” in 1588. At the time England was a small, insignificant island nation while Spain was the richest, most powerful empire in the world.

The conflict between the two countries was political as well as religious. Elizabeth, the Protestant Queen of England, had encouraged the activities of British pirates who plundered Spanish ships returning from the New World. The Catholic king of Spain, Phillip II, had had enough of the Protestant upstarts of England and dispatched his fleet of more than 100 ships to invade the British.

On July 29, 1588 the Armada reached sight of the English shore and confronted the much smaller British fleet. Sea battles raged on and off until August. Although the English were the smaller force, they used superior tactics to outmaneuver the Spanish; in addition, terrible rain and wind prevented the Spanish from reaching the English shore. By the time the Armada turned around to return to Spain, nearly half of its ships had been destroyed (1).

Before the British victory over the Spanish Armada had been sealed, Elizabeth courageously left her palace in London to travel to Tilbury in Essex, England to address her assembled troops. Her tenacious refusal to be defeated by the Spanish foreshadows Winston Churchill’s similar refusal to yield to the Germans more than 350 years later.  Her speech was short but powerful.  Notice how in the opening lines of the speech she switches quickly from the royal “we” to the first person “I.”

My loving people,

We have been persuaded by some that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear, I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good-will of my subjects; and therefore I am come amongst you, as you see, at this time, not for my recreation and disport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live and die amongst you all; to lay down for my God, and for my kingdom, and my people, my honour and my blood, even in the dust. I know I have the body but of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king, and of a king of England too, and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realm; to which rather than any dishonour shall grow by me, I myself will take up arms, I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, for your forwardness you have deserved rewards and crowns; and We do assure you in the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean time, my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble or worthy subject; not doubting but by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and your valour in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over those enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people (2)

The astonishing and decisive victory by the British over the Spanish Armada is one of the key turning points in history. It prevented the extinction of Protestantism in England and also prevented the end of the Reformation in Europe. It gave birth to the nationalism of the British Empire and opened the door to British exploration of the world, especially North America. Linguistically it meant that English, not Spanish, would survive on the British Isles and eventually become the global language it is today (3).

Imagine how different it would have been if Shakespeare, who began writing his plays in London in 1589, would have written in Spanish rather than English.

Today’s Challenge:  The Queen’s Speech
How do effective speakers combine reason, emotion, and credibility to make their point and motivate their audience?  Carefully read Elizabeth’s famous speech at Tilbury, and write an analysis in which you identify what makes it effective.  Consider important elements such as the speaker, the subject, the audience, the purpose, and the occasion.  Also consider her use of logos (logic), pathos (emotion), and pathos (credibility). (Common Core Speaking and Listening 3)

Quotation of the Day: Victorious warriors win first and then go to war, while defeated warriors go to war first and then seek to win. –Sun-tzu


1 – Coffin, Judith G., Robert C. Stacey, Robert E. Lerner, and Standish Meacham. Western Civilization, Volume 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

2 – The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th Edition. Vol 1, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1993. ISBN. 0393962873

3 –

4 – Reader’s Digest Success with Words: A Guide to the American Language. Pleasantville, New York: The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc., 1983.