Reflecting Pool

A Litany for Grief and Courage

Tonight, Americans mourn and wait.

And we do so with lights at the Reflecting Pool, President Lincoln’s visage gazing over us. His ghost wonders, I suspect, if we will fully know the grief of four years of conflict and find the courage to heal the wounds our divided nation has inflicted upon itself.

Because there are few words for such an evening, I share this poem from Carl Sandburg. Written during the Vietnam War, it draws on Lincoln’s wisdom and the pain of the Civil War, calling us forth from loss, death, and division while holding forth the courage of kindness, laughter, and song.

Sandburg’s poem reflects on these words of President Lincoln, one month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, worthy to recall this Inauguration Day:

We can succeed only by concert. It is not "can any of us imagine better?" but, "can we all do better?" The dogmas of the quiet past, are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise — with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We — even we here — hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just — a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.

My whole hope for the next few days is found in Lincoln’s question: It is not "can any of us imagine better?" but, "can we all do better?"

Can we ALL do better?

Light a candle. Stand by the reflecting pool. Remember. Tears are welcome. And may courage flourish.

We CAN all do better.


The Long Shadow of Lincoln: A Litany 

by Carl Sandburg (1970)

(We can succeed only by concert. . . . The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves. . . . December 1, 1862. The President’s Message to Congress.)


Be sad, be cool, be kind,
remembering those now dreamdust
hallowed in the ruts and gullies,
solemn bones under the smooth blue sea,
faces warblown in a falling rain.

Be a brother, if so can be,
to those beyond battle fatigue
each in his own corner of earth
      or forty fathoms undersea
      beyond all boom of guns,
      beyond any bong of a great bell,
      each with a bosom and number,
      each with a pack of secrets,
each with a personal dream and doorway
and over them now the long endless winds
      with the low healing song of time,
      the hush and sleep murmur of time.

Make your wit a guard and cover.
Sing low, sing high, sing wide.
Let your laughter come free
remembering looking toward peace:
“We must disenthrall ourselves.”

Be a brother, if so can be,
to those thrown forward
for taking hardwon lines,
for holding hardwon points
      and their reward so-so,
little they care to talk about,
their pay held in a mute calm,
highspot memories going unspoken,
what they did being past words,
what they took being hardwon.
      Be sad, be kind, be cool.
          Weep if you must
      And weep open and shameless
         before these altars.

There are wounds past words.
There are cripples less broken
than many who walk whole.
     There are dead youths
      with wrists of silence
      who keep a vast music
     under their shut lips,
what they did being past words,
their dreams like their deaths
beyond any smooth and easy telling,
having given till no more to give.

      There is dust alive
with dreams of The Republic,
with dreams of the Family of Man
flung wide on a shrinking globe
      with old timetables,
      old maps, old guide-posts
      torn into shreds,
      shot into tatters
      burnt in a firewind,
      lost in the shambles,
      faded in rubble and ashes.

      There is dust alive.
Out of a granite tomb,
Out of a bronze sarcophagus,
Loose from the stone and copper
Steps a whitesmoke ghost
Lifting an authoritative hand
In the name of dreams worth dying for,
In the name of men whose dust breathes
      of those dreams so worth dying for,
what they did being past words,
beyond all smooth and easy telling.

Be sad, be kind, be cool,
remembering, under God, a dreamdust
hallowed in the ruts and gullies,
solemn bones under the smooth blue sea,
faces warblown in a falling rain.

Sing low, sing high, sing wide.
Make your wit a guard and cover.
Let your laughter come free
like a help and a brace of comfort.

      The earth laughs, the sun laughs
over every wise harvest of man,
over man looking toward peace
by the light of the hard old teaching:
     “We must disenthrall ourselves.”

Carl Sandburg, “The Long Shadow of Lincoln: A Litany” from The Complete Poems of Carl Sandburg.


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