July 13, 2013

Lincoln's Favourite Poem

Abraham Lincoln's statue in Old Calton Cemetery in Scotland. Source of Photo.

 "Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?" by Scottish poet William Knox (1789–1825), also known as "Mortality," was Abraham Lincoln's favourite poem. Knox, "son of a farmer in Roxburghshire, he wrote several books of poetry, The Lonely Hearth, Songs of Israel, Harp of Zion, etc." (Wikipedia). 

An excerpt from John J. Miller's article, "With Death on His Mind," (Wall Street Journal, February 11, 2012):
"Lincoln recited the poem so much that some people assumed he had written it. The president always corrected the mistake. One listener eventually recognized the lines. Gen. James Grant Wilson knew "Mortality" and sent a copy of Knox's collected works to Lincoln. What Lincoln thought of the Knox corpus, or if he even read it, is not known. One story, perhaps erroneous, claims that Lincoln performed "Mortality" a final time on April 15, 1865, just hours before his assassination.

Although "Mortality" says nothing of an afterlife, Lincoln and Knox had a posthumous rendezvous. In 1893, the Scottish-American Soldiers Monument was built on the grounds of the Old Calton Cemetery in Edinburgh. Atop the monument stands a bronze Lincoln, the first statue of an American president erected outside the U.S. Nearby, in what "Mortality" calls a "dwelling of rest," lies the grave of William Knox."
From the website Abraham Lincoln Online:
In the 1830s, Dr. Jason Duncan introduced Lincoln to the poem "Mortality" (sometimes called "Immortality" or "Oh, Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud?"). At the time, the increasingly melancholy Lincoln lived in New Salem, Illinois, and had already lost several friends and relatives to death.

Gradually Lincoln memorized the piece, but did not know the author's identity until late in life. He became so identified with the poem that some people thought he had written it. However, he only wished he had. He once remarked, "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." The author, a descendant of reformer John Knox, published the poem in a collection called The Songs of Israel in 1824, shortly before his death at age 36.

Lawrence Weldon, who traveled the law circuit with Lincoln, recalled Lincoln reciting the poem in 1860. He said, "The weird and melancholy association of eloquence and poetry had a strong fascination for Mr. Lincoln's mind. Tasteful composition, either of prose or poetry, which faithfully contrasted the realities of eternity with the unstable and fickle fortunes of time, made a strong impression on his mind."
An excerpt from, "The Soul of Abraham Lincoln" by William E. Barton (2005):
Everyone knows his love for the mediocre but melodious poem, "O Why Should the Spirit of Mortal be Proud," which like the religious song he loved, "How tedious and tasteless the hours," moved mournfully in triple time, flaunting crepe in the face of the spirit of the waltz. About the only contemporary poem which he is known to have cared much for was Holmes' "Last Leaf," in which he was particularly moved by the lines,---
"The mossy marble rest 
On the lips that he has prest,
           In their bloom,
And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year 
          On the tomb."

Herndon is correct in saying that Lincoln read less and thought more than any man prominent in public life in his generation." (Barton. The Soul of Abraham Lincoln. University of Illinois. Pg. 166-167. Source).