It is portentous, and a thing of state
That here at midnight, in our little town
A mourning figure walks, and will not rest,
Near the old court-house pacing up and down,
From Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight by Vachel Lindsay.
Vachel Linday was an American poet, writer, mystic, public speaker, and artist whose work was particularly admired in some religious revival circles early in the Twntieth Century.
Nicholas Vachel Lindsay was born in Springfield, Illinois on Nov. 10, 1879. His father was Dr. Vachel Thomas Lindsay, a physician, and his mother was Caterhine Frazee. His parents were Cambellites, a church founded in 1830 by the Scotch-Irish clergyman Alexander Campbell. The Cambellites emphasized education, individual spiritual life, and the missionary role of American democracy. The Cambellites also hopes for one nondemoniational Christian Church. These beliefs had a great influence on Vachel's career as a poet, pamphleteer, and lecturer.
Vachel graduated from Springfield High School in 1897 and began to study medicine at a Cambellite school, Hiram College in Ohio. He was a student at Hiram until 1899 but did not get a degree and left college to return to Springfield.
According to research done by Joseph G. Kronick of the Modern American Poetry website (see link below at the end of this article), Vachel Lindsay "kept notebooks and diaries, a practice he had begun when he was seven and continued throughout his life. He headed each diary with "This book belongs to Christ," consecrating himself to a lifelong project of spreading what he called "the gospel of beauty" devoted to the redemption of mankind through art."
Vachel studied a the Chicago Art Institute from 1901 to 1903. His work was considered just average and his drawings were illustrations of his poems and the Gospel. He imitated William Blake and the pre-Raphaelites, but without the much talent.
He studied at the New York School of Art (1903-1904) and he spent time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vachel also tried to publish his poems and illustrations but had few customers.
"In the summer of 1904 Lindsay experienced his first visions. At night, and again the next day, he saw Old Testament prophets. Afterward, he wrote his first mystical poem, "A Prayer in the Jungles of Heaven," and drew his "Map of the Universe," a source for symbols that appear in many of his poems and which he had reproduced in a slightly different version as the frontispiece to Collected Poems (1923). The map depicts Lindsay's moral "universe," with "The Throne of Mountains" standing atop "The Jungles of Heaven." At the bottom, lying by the "River Called Hate," is the tomb containing Lucifer; slightly above "The Gulfs of Silence" is his harp, from which issues "The Flame of Lucifer's Singing," which extends to heaven. Other symbols include "The Palace of Eve," "The Soul of a Butterfly" (Beauty), and a spider (Mammon). Lindsay also had a vision of his ideal bride, whom he called Psyche or Eve or Lady Romance. His tendency to idealize women, combined with his naïveté and his father's stern warnings against sex, may have contributed to his tendency to form one-sided romantic attachments that failed to develop into anything beyond infatuation."
"On 23 and 24 March 1905 Lindsay had copies of two poems printed and tried to sell them on the streets of New York. These evenings spent peddling his poetry set the pattern for much of his career as a self-fashioned troubadour or wandering poet. His wandering began in earnest when he set sail for Florida on 3 March 1906 to begin the first of his tramps. Starting from Jacksonville, he walked through Georgia, the Carolinas, Kentucky, and home to Springfield. To pay his way, he gave recitals and lectures and sold copies of his poems. Shortly after his return home in June, he accompanied his family to Europe. On the night of 4 September, as the ship neared New York, he had a vision of Christ singing in Heaven. Between 10 November and Christmas he wrote "I Heard Immanuel Singing," expressing his millennerian vision."
IN 1907 Vachel left New York and set out on foot to Springfield, Illinois. In August 1908 he lectured on race at the YMCA after witnessing race riots in Springfield, and in 1909 he lectured on behalf of the Anti-Saloon League.
"On 19 July 1909 he published at his own expense the first of five War Bulletins, which attacked greed, urbanization, and race prejudice. The third contained "The Creed of a Beggar," in which he declared himself a believer "in Christ the Socialist." The fourth, a collection of poems called The Tramp's Excuses, was published in September, and the fifth appeared in November."
From 1909 to 1912 Lindsay remained in Springfield writing.
Vachel travelled across the US to the west coast but always made Springfield his home base. In 1912 he wrote in to Los Angeles a poem that got him much attention called "General William Booth Enters into Heaven," a tribute to the founder of the Salvation Army.
"In February 1915 Lindsay recited before Woodrow Wilson's cabinet. He received the Levinson prize for "The Chinese Nightingale," published by Poetry in November 1915. At this time also, upon the recommendation of Macmillan, he dropped "Nicholas" from his name. In the same year Lindsay received invitations to meet Jane Addams, Henry Ford, and D. W. Griffith. The Art of the Moving Picture (1915), Lindsay's classification and judgment of films, is notable for recognizing film's potential not only as an art, but as a medium for propaganda and cultural formation; the book closes with a prediction of an American millennium ushered in by movies."
Through out the 1920s, Vachel Lindsay toured all over the country giving lectures, sermons, and reading his poetry to make money.
"In June 1924 Lindsay went to the Mayo Foundation in Rochester, Minnesota, where he was diagnosed as epileptic. In July 1924 he moved to Spokane, Washington, where he met Elizabeth Conner, a 23-year-old high school teacher. They married in 1925 and had two children. Suffering from paranoid delusions and spurred by resentment toward his audiences, Lindsay was given to sudden outbursts of rage at public functions, but his deteriorating financial situation forced him to go on tour in 1926."
"A long tour, from October 1928 through March 1929, erased his debts but left him penniless. His financial burden was alleviated by a $500 prize awarded by Poetry in recognition of his life's work, but his reputation continued its decline. His family life also declined; he had delusions of persecution and unfounded suspicions of his wife's infidelity. Continuous money-raising tours were interrupted by brief visits at home. In 1930 he was made Doctor Honoris Causa by Hiram College, but his mental health continued to decline, and he threatened his wife and children with violence. On 5 December 1931 he committed suicide at home by drinking Lysol. His doctor decided that Lindsay's death should be reported as heart failure, and it was announced as such in the Springfield paper."
For more on the poems of Vachel Lindsay of Springfield, Illinois, click here to see the Modern American Poetry collection of articles.