Abraham Lincoln's favorite poem: morbid but instructive

With Death on His Mind

On the evening of March 25, 1864, Abraham Lincoln sent his young son Tad to fetch a copy of Shakespeare's plays from the White House library. With the volume in hand, the president recited passages to an audience of one: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a painter who was working on "First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln," a portrait that now hangs in the Capitol.

 After a while, Lincoln set down the book. "There is a poem that has been a great favorite with me for years," he said. Then he closed his eyes and declaimed 56 lines. He knew the words, but nothing else of the poem. "I would give a great deal," he said, "to know who wrote it, but I never could ascertain."

The author was William Knox and the title was "Mortality," though it was perhaps better known by its first line, "O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!" The theme is death, the great leveler that touches saints and sinners, kings and beggars, parents and children. Today, poet and poem would be almost entirely forgotten but for their connection to Lincoln.

Knox was born in Scotland in 1789. A descendant of John Knox, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, he showed a flair for verse at a young age but went into farming. He wasn't very good at it, possibly because he drank too much, and abandoned agriculture after five years. What he really wanted to do was write. His first collection of poems, "The Lonely Hearth," appeared in 1818. Two more followed: "The Songs of Israel," which includes "Mortality," in 1824 and "The Harp of Zion" in 1825.

The final book almost didn't see print. A publisher lost the manuscript, forcing Knox to spend several days rewriting its 65 poems in an impressive feat of recall. A few months later, Knox suffered a stroke and died at the age of 36. Sir Walter Scott eulogized him as "a young poet of considerable talent." Robert Southey, England's poet laureate at the time, also admired Knox.

Yet it was a former backwoodsman from the U.S. who kept Knox's words alive, helping the poet become a literary one-hit wonder. In 1831, a friend handed the then 22-year-old Lincoln a copy of "Mortality," untitled and anonymous, probably clipped from a newspaper. Lincoln had good taste in poetry, reading and memorizing works by Robert Burns and Lord Byron as well as Shakespeare. The obscure "Mortality," however, became the poem he liked best. "I would give all I am worth and go into debt to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is," he wrote in 1846.

Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud? Like a swift-fleeting meteor, a fast-flying cloud, A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave, He passes from life to his rest in the grave.

The leaves of the oak and the willow shall fade, Be scattered around, and together be laid; And the young and the old, the low and the high, Shall molder to dust, and together shall lie.

The infant a mother attended and loved; The mother that infant's affection who proved; The husband, that mother and infant who blessed; Each, all, are away to their dwelling of rest.

The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye, Shone beauty and pleasure - her triumphs are by; And the memory of those who loved her and praised, Are alike from the minds of the living erased.

The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne, The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn, The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave, Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave.

The peasant, whose lot was to sow and to reap, The herdsman, who climbed with his goats up the steep, The beggar, who wandered in search of his bread, Have faded away like the grass that we tread.

The saint, who enjoyed the communion of Heaven, The sinner, who dared to remain unforgiven, The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just, Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

So the multitude goes - like the flower or the weed That withers away to let others succeed; So the multitude comes - even those we behold, To repeat every tale that has often been told.

For we are the same that our fathers have been; We see the same sights that our fathers have seen; We drink the same stream, we feel the same sun, And run the same course that our fathers have run.

The thoughts we are thinking, our fathers would think; From the death we are shrinking, our fathers would shrink; To the life we are clinging, they also would cling - But it speeds from us all like a bird on the wing.

They loved - but the story we cannot unfold; They scorned - but the heart of the haughty is cold; They grieved - but no wail from their slumber will come; They joyed - but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.

They died - aye, they died - we things that are now, That walk on the turf that lies over their brow, And make in their dwellings a transient abode, Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.

Yea, hope and despondency, pleasure and pain, Are mingled together in sunshine and rain; And the smile and the tear, the song and the dirge, Still follow each other, like surge upon surge.

'Tis the wink of an eye - 'tis the draught of a breath - From the blossom of health to the paleness of death, From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?

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