The Meaning of Abraham Lincoln's Favorite Poem

At The Corner this morning John J. Miller notes Abraham Lincoln’s birthday tomorrow and directs readers to a fantastic piece he has in today’s Wall Street Journal titled “With Death on His Mind” which reveals the history of our 16th president’s favorite poem:


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.

Here’s the complete poem. Indeed, it’s an extraordinary work:


(Job, iii. Ecclesiastes, i.)

              1 O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

              2 Like a fast flitting meteor, a fast flying cloud,

              3 A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave —

              4 He passes from life to his rest in the grave.

              5 The leaves of the oak and the willows shall fade,

              6 Be scattered around, and together be laid;

              7 And the young and the old, and the low and the high,

              8 Shall moulder to dust, and together shall lie.


              9 The child that a mother attended and loved,

            10 The mother that infant’s affection that proved,

            11 The husband that mother and infant that blest,

            12 Each — all are away to their dwelling of rest.

            13 The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye,

            14 Shone beauty and pleasure — her triumphs are by:

            15 And the memory of those that beloved her and praised,

            16 Are alike from the minds of the living erased.

            17 The hand of the king that the sceptre hath borne,

            18 The brow of the priest that the mitre hath worn,

            19 The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave,

            20 Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave.

            21 The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap,

            22 The herdsman who climbed with his goats to the steep,

            23 The beggar that wandered in search of his bread,

            24 Have faded away like the grass that we tread.

            25 The saint that enjoyed the communion of Heaven,

            26 The sinner that dared to remain unforgiven,

            27 The wise and the foolish, the guilty and just,

            28 Have quietly mingled their bones in the dust.

            29 So the multitude goes — like the flower and the weed


            30 That wither away to let others succeed;

            31 So the multitude comes — even those we behold,

            32 To repeat every tale that hath often been told.

            33 For we are the same things that our fathers have been,

            34 We see the same sights that our fathers have seen,

            35 We drink the same stream, and we feel the same sun,

            36 And we run the same course that our fathers have run.

            37 The thoughts we are thinking our fathers would think,

            38 From the death we are shrinking from they too would shrink,

            39 To the life we are clinging to they too would cling —

            40 But it speeds from the earth like a bird on the wing.

            41 They loved — but their story we cannot unfold;

            42 They scorned — but the heart of the haughty is cold;

            43 They grieved — but no wail from their slumbers may come;

            44 They joyed — but the voice of their gladness is dumb.

            45 They died — ay, they died! and we, things that are now,

            46 Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow,

            47 Who make in their dwellings a transient abode,

            48 Meet the change they met on their pilgrimage road.


            49 Yea, hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain,

            50 Are mingled together like sunshine and rain;

            51 And the smile and the tear, and the song and the dirge,

            52 Still follow each other like surge upon surge.

            53 Tis the twink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,

            54 From the blossom of health to the paleness of death,

            55 From the gilded saloon to the bier and the shroud —

            56 O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!

There’s a revealing detail in Miller’s article about the mind which composed this work, emphasis mine:

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.

That kind of puts this pair of lines in a different context doesn’t it?

Yea, hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain / Are mingled together like sunshine and rain;


The poet here is not just describing a generalization of life — but his probable manic-depressive temperament. (See these two longer pieces I’ve written here and here based on the books of Kay Redfield Jameson, Nassir Ghaemi, and John Gartner for more on the subject of psychiatric disorders fueling the achievements of artists, politicians, and entrepreneurs.)

So too, Lincoln’s selection of this poem should not just be understood as a sentimental understanding of the President’s wisdom and character, but also a reflection of his battles with depression.

For this President’s Day coming up, I think I’ll start this book (which has been waiting patiently in my piles for a few weeks): Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Anybody read it and have an opinion?


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