Matthew Gentry was one of Abraham Lincoln's schoolmates. One day, without warning, Abraham saw the boy attempt to maim himself, fight his father, and attack his mother. This incident made a lasting impression on young Abe. On September 6, 1846, Lincoln sent this poem to Andrew Johnston, a practicing lawyer of Quincy, Illinois. The cover letter gave some background details and the final sentence read, "When, as I told you in my other letter I visited my old home in the fall of 1844, I found him (Matthew Gentry) still lingering in the wretched condition. In my poetizing mood I could not forget the impression his case made upon me.
But here's an object more of dread
Than ought the grave contains -
A human with reason fled,
While wretched life remains.
Poor Matthew! Once of genius bright
A fortune-favored child
Now locked for aye, in mental night,
A haggard mad-man wild.
Poor Matthew! I have ne'er forgot,
When first, with maddened will,
Yourself you maimed, your father fought,
And mother strove to kill;
When terror spread, and neighbors ran,
Your dange'rous strength to bind;
And soon, a howling crazyman
Your limbs were fast confined.
How then you strove and shrieked aloud,
Your bones and sinews bared;
And fiendish on the gazing crown,
With burning eye-balls glared -
And begged, and swore, and wept and prayed,
With maniac laugh(ter) joined -
How fearful were those signs displayed
By pangs that killed thy mind!
And when at length, tho' drear and long,
Time soothes thy fiercer woes,
How plaintively thy mournful song
Upon the still night rose.
I've heard it oft, as if I dreamed,
Far distant, sweet, and lone-
The funeral dirge, it ever seemed
Of reason dead and gone.
To drink it's strains, I've stole away,
All stealthily and still,
Ere yet the rising god of day
Had streaked the Eastern hill.
Air held his breath; trees, with the spell
Seemed sorrowing angels round,
Whose swelling tears in dew-drops fell
Upon the listening ground.
But this is past; and nought remains,
That raised thee o'er the brute.
Thy piercing shrieks, and soothing strains,
Are like, forever mute.
Now fare thee well - more thou the cause,
Than subject now of woe
All mental pangs, by time's kind laws,
Hast lost the power to know.
O death! Thou awe-inspiring prince,
That keepst the world in fear;
Why dost thou tear more blest ones hence.
And leave him ling'ring here?