Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?

On Monday, March 7, after making a couple of stops in Oklahoma City, I ventured twenty miles south to the campus of the University of Oklahoma. My destination was Monett Hall, formerly the University's Law Library, but now the building that houses the Western Heritage Museum. The Museum is free, but my desire was to be able to see something that I knew the staff at the Western Heritage Museum kept in the vault. A poem, handwritten on both sides of a legal size piece of paper by Abraham Lincoln, was my objective. The poem, authored by William Knox (1789-1825), is a dark narrative on man’s mortality. Lincoln considered Knox's poem, entitled "Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?" to be the finest poem ever penned.

President Lincoln quoted portions of Knox's poem from memory so often that many thought he was the original author. While campaigning in Illinois in 1849, Lincoln and his associates were entertained by a trio of ladies who sang for them. Lincoln, pressed by the trio to sing something himself, politely declined but offered to quote a poem. When Lincoln finished reciting the verses of Knox’s poem, those who heard him had been moved to tears. One of the young ladies in the trio requested a written copy of the poem. During the night Lincoln wrote out the verses on a piece of parchment and gave it to the woman at breakfast the next morning. Henry Benjamin “Heine” Bass (1897-1975) from Enid, Oklahoma purchased this piece of Lincoln memorabilia in the 1930’s and he considered it the most valuable artifact in his vast Lincoln collection. It is part of the Bass Collection at the Western Heritage Museum, but is not displayed for the public. I would estimate the artifact's worth to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

I was pleasantly surprised that the Museum staff pulled the poem out of its vault for me to see. There is something deeply moving when sitting at a table and reading a poem you know to be Lincoln's favorite, written with his own hand. This particular piece of Lincoln memorabilia has never been photographed, at least in terms of published photography. I was surprised by a couple of curious things regarding Lincoln's handwriting and the piece of parchment itself. But it was the somber tone of Knox's words, read slowly by me at the table out loud (on behalf of the archivist who wished to hear the poem read) that moved me the most. Below is the poem in its entirety. The book I am writing on John Wilkes Booth and Boston Corbett takes its title from one of the lines in the poem - "A Transient Abode."

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?