October 12, 2012
By Aaron Belz
According to a May 26, 1927 article in The Milwaukee Journal, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite poem—one, in fact, he committed to memory—was “Mortality” by the obscure Scottish poet William Knox (1789-1825). “I would give all I am worth, and go into debt,” wrote Lincoln to a friend in Illinois, “to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is. Neither do I know who is the author. I met it in a straggling form in a newspaper last summer” (April 18, 1846; see The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume 1, pages 378-9). The article observes that Lincoln “clung to it throughout his life as an expression of the humility that was his. It is not a poem of hope—rather of despair.” John J. Miller’s recent Wall Street Journal article, “With Death on His Mind,” provides history of both Knox (who turns out to have been a descendant of Scottish reformer John Knox) and of Lincoln’s relationship to the poem.
What drew Lincoln to “Mortality”? Here’s the first stanza:
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.
Quatrain by plodding quatrain, the poem emphasizes a point the Romantics embraced as firmly as biblical authors did: Life is surprisingly short, and death consumes everyone, regardless of accomplishments or failures. Also, beauty fades: “The maid on whose cheek, on whose brow, in whose eye, / Shone beauty and pleasure,—her triumphs are by.” So does love: “The memory of those who loved her and praised / Are alike from the minds of the living erased.” Everyone, everything is ultimately “hidden and lost in the depth of the grave.” This is the wisdom of Ecclesiastes and James, Shelley and Keats, but for Lincoln it is captured nowhere more poignantly than in Knox’s “Mortality.”
With that letter of April 1846, Lincoln enclosed a poem he himself had penned. He explains its inspiration: “I went into the neighborhood in that State in which I was raised, where my mother and only sister were buried, and from which I had been absent about fifteen years. That part of the country is, within itself, as unpoetical as any spot of the earth; but still, seeing it and its objects and inhabitants aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry.” The untitled poem, begins: “My childhood's home I see again, / And sadden with the view.” And although he writes “There's pleasure in it too,” he ends his poem on a sober note:
hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.
Nineteen years later Lincoln delivered his Second Inaugural Address. The Second Inaugural seems almost a sui generis in the category of American political rhetoric, because from the well of despair and the conviction that life is transient, Lincoln draws hope. In stark contrast to contemporary political speechmaking, he refuses to make a promise—“With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured”—then he finds, in a transcendent awareness of purpose, that must transcend even death, a hope that leads to healing for both the North and the South:
“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
Much has been made of Lincoln’s melancholy, as if it were merely an affliction. But for Americans in 1865 it was also a blessing. In the Civil War, Lincoln had witnessed William Knox’s “Mortality” come true. He had been “living in the tombs” for decades, so he was equipped to offer real wisdom.
—Aaron Belz lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina. His most recent collection of poems is titled Lovely, Raspberry (Persea, 2010).