Lincoln wrote about this poem, “Mortality” by William Knox (Scottish poet 1789-1825), to his friend Andrew Johnston (not Johnson!):
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. Neither do I know who is the author. I met it in a straggling form in a newspaper last summer, and I remember to have seen it once before, about fifteen years ago, and this is all I know about it. (1846)
Joseph H. Barrett in his 1865 biography of Lincoln, Illustrated Life of Abraham Lincoln, said that a woman after hearing Lincoln recite the poem by heart, requested to read the full poem, whereby the president kindly hand-wrote a copy and mailed it to her (Illustrated Life of Abraham Lincoln, Joseph H. Barrett, Moore, Wilstacii & Baldwin, 1865).
Mortality by William Knox O why should the spirit of mortal be proud? Like a fast-flitting meteor, a fast-flying cloud, A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave, He passes 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 moulder to dust, and together shall lie. The child that a mother attended and loved, The mother that infant’s affection that proved; The husband that mother and infant that blessed, Each, all, are away to their dwelling 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 that beloved her and praised Are alike from the minds of the living erased. The hand of the king that the scepter hath borne, The brow of the priest that the miter hath worn, The eye of the sage, and the heart of the brave, Are hidden and lost in the depths of the grave. The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap, The herdsman who climbed with his goats to the steep, The beggar that wandered in search of his bread, Have faded away like the grass that we tread. The saint that enjoyed the communion of heaven, The sinner that 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 flower and the weed That wither away to let others succeed; So the multitude comes, even those we behold, To repeat every tale that hath often been told. For we are the same that our fathers have been; We see the same sights that our fathers have seen,— We drink the same stream,and we feel the same sun, And we run the same course that our fathers have run. The thoughts we are thinking, our fathers would think; From the death we are shrinking, they too would shrink; To the life we are clinging to, they too would cling; But it speeds from the earth like a bird on the wing. They loved, but the story we cannot unfold; They scorned, but the heart of the haughty is cold; They grieved, but no wail from their slumber may come; They enjoyed, but the voice of their gladness is dumb. They died, ay! they died! and we things that are now, Who walk on the turf that lies over their brow, Who make in their dwellings a transient abode, Meet the changes they met on their pilgrimage road. Yea! hope and despondence, and pleasure and pain, Are mingled together like sunshine and rain; And the smile and the tear, and 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,— O why should the spirit of mortal be proud?