352) Abraham Lincoln’s Favorite Poem

The earliest known photograph of Abraham Lincoln from the mid-1840’s

William Knox was a Scottish farmer and poet.  He is not very well known except for this poem, and this piece is remembered primarily because it was Abraham Lincoln’s favorite.  Lincoln first read it when he was a young man.  He liked it so much he memorized it.  He would often quote it in conversation, repeating “the lines so often that people suspected they were his own.”  Lincoln assured them that he was not the author, but said, “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”  (Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk, 2005, p. 121)

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MORTALITY

   By William Knox (1789-1825)

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,
Man passeth 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, and 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 dwellings 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 depth 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 flowers 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 our fathers have been;
We see the same sights our fathers have seen;
We drink the same stream, and view the same sun,
And run the same course 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 for us all, like a bird on the wing.
 
They loved, but the story we cannot unfold;
The scorned, but the heart of the haughty is cold;
They grieved, but no wail from their slumbers will come;
They joyed, but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.
 
They died, aye! they died; and we things that are now,
Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow,
Who make in their dwelling a transient abode,
Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.
 
Yea! hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
We mingle together in sunshine and rain;
And the smiles and the tears, 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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Job 20:11  —  The youthful vigor that fills his bones will lie with him in the dust.
Ecclesiastes 1:9-11  ––  What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.  Is there anything of which one can say, “Look!  This is something new”?  It was here already, long ago; it was here before our time.  No one remembers the former generations, and even those yet to come will not be remembered by those who follow them.
Ecclesiastes 3:20  —  All go to the same place; all come from the dust, and to dust all return.
James 4:14b  —  What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.  
Isaiah 40:6-8  —  A voice says, “Cry out.” 
    And I said, “What shall I cry?” 
   “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them.  Surely the people are grass.  The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”
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AN EVENING PRAYER:  Watch over us, O Lord, our heavenly Father.  Preserve us from all evil and grant that we may this night rest secure beneath thy care.  Bless thy Church and our government.  Remember the sick and those who are in need or in peril.  Have mercy upon all people.  And when our last evening shall come, grant us to fall asleep in thy peace and to awake in thy glory; through Jesus Christ, thy Son, our Lord.  Amen.    
Lutheran Service Book and Hymnal, 1958, Augsburg Publishing House