"Mortality" by William Knox
Source of witness transcribed: The Madisonian (Washington, DC)
Date of witness transcribed: 19 December 1839
Notes about this poem: "Mortality" was printed in at least 235 newspapers during the nineteenth century. It can be found using ID 75841 in this table of most widely-reprinted poems.
The poem is attributed here to J. Knox, but was written by Scottish poet William Knox and first published in his 1824 book Songs of Israel. The poem was most widely reprinted under the title "O! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud!" (the poem's first line) after the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. It was purported to be one of Lincoln's favorite poems, which he would often recite from memory, and the poem's reflections on mortality resonated with the national mood of mourning at the time.
- Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
- Like a light-fleeting meteor, a fast-flitting cloud,
- A flash of the lightning, a break of the wave,
He 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 moulder to dust, and together shall lie.
- The child whom a mother attended and loved;
- The mother that infant’s affection who proved;
- The husband that mother and infant who blest,
Each, all are away to their dwelling of rest.
- The maid on whose brow, on whose cheek, in whose eye
- Shone beauty and pleasure, her triumphs are by;
- And alike from the minds of the living erased,
Are the mem’ries of mortals who loved her and praised.
- 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 depths of the grave.
- The saint who enjoy’d 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.
- The peasant whose lot was to sow and to reap;
- The herdsman that climb’d with his goats up the steep;
- The beggar who wander’d in search of his bread,
Have faded away like the grass that we tread.
- So the multitude goes, like the flower or the weed
- That wither away to let others succeed;
- So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To reap every tale that has often been told.
- For we are the same that our fathers have been,
- We’ve seen the same sights that our fathers have seen;
- We drink the same stream, and we see the same sun,
And we run the course that 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 from the earth like a bird on the wing.
- They loved, but their story we cannot unfold,
- They scorned, but the heart of the haughty is cold;
- They grieved, but no wail from their slumbers will come;
They joyed, but the tongues of their gladness is dumb.
- They died!—ah! they died! We things that are now,
- Who walk on the turf that lies over each brow,
- That make in their dwellings a transient abode,
Meet the things that they met on their pilgrimage road.
- Yea, hope and despondency, pleasure and pain,
- Are mingled together in 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—
- Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?