Analyzing Lincoln’s voice

Abraham Lincoln had a powerful and distinctive writing voice, best heard in his “Gettysburg Address”:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon 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 here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it 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 can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not 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 can never forget what they did here.

It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. 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 here gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Ten sentences, 272 words of indelible prose. What devices make this voice distinctive?

Lincoln begins with archaic language and phasing, not “In 1776” or “87 years ago,” but “Four score and seven years ago.” “Brought forth, upon this continent” has the sweep and ring of the King James Bible. He ends his first paragraph by quoting Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal,” echoed in the closing: “this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Lincoln uses simple diction throughout, full of Biblical language: “conceive,” “dedicate,” “devotion,” “resolve,” “perish.” He repeats simple words: “here” seven times, “we” ten, “us” four, “nation” five, and “dedicate” five, creating a sense of unity. His powerful verbs are full of actions. He avoids contractions.

Mostly he writes sentences that branch to the right, with a few short insertions, creating a flowing rhythm and great clarity. His sentences turn on parallel phrasing:

“any nation so conceived, and so dedicated”
“we are engaged…. We are met …. We have come….”
“we can not dedicate – we can not consecrate – we can not hallow this ground.”
“It is for us…. It is rather for us….”
“what we say here, … what they did here.”
“government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Most of his sentences are roughly the same length, until the last one, which is 84 words long, almost a third of whole address. The shorter sentences build up a rolling rhythm, and that final long sentence delivers his message in powerful, memorable form.

Lincoln mixes imagery of birth and death with references to land and ground and fields, appropriate for a funeral oration.

Forgetting for a moment what we know about Lincoln, what personality emerges from these devices? I would call it strong and determined, simple yet formal, patriotic and sincere, clear, and absolutely compelling. As with Jefferson, readers want to follow anyone who talks and writes like that.

[What personality traits do you perceive behind this famous address?]

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Published in: on October 31, 2009 at 11:33 am  Leave a Comment  

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