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[58]

XIX.

The evening of March 25th was an intensely interesting one to me. It was passed with the President alone in his study, marked by no interruptions. Busy with pen and papers when I entered, he presently threw them aside, and commenced talking again about Shakspeare. Little Tad coming in, he sent him to the library for a copy of the plays, from which he read aloud several of his favorite passages. Relapsing into a sadder strain, he laid the book aside, and leaning back in his chair, said, “There is a poem that has been a great favorite with me for years, to which my attention was first called when a young man, by a friend, and which I afterward saw and cut from a newspaper, and carried in my pocket, till by frequent reading I had it by heart. I would give a great deal,” he added, “to know who wrote it, but I never could ascertain.” Then, half closing his eyes, he repeated the poem, “Oh! Why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” Surprised and delighted, I told him that I should greatly prize a copy of the lines. He replied that he had recently written them out for Mrs. Stanton, but promised that when a favorable opportunity occurred he would give them to me.

Varying the subject, he continued: “There are some quaint, queer verses, written, I think, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, entitled, ‘The Last Leaf,’ [59] one of which is to me inexpressibly touching. He then repeated these also from memory. The verse he referred to occurs in about the middle of the poem, and is this:--

The mossy marbles rest
On the lips that he has pressed
In their bloom;

And the names he loved to hear
Have been carved for many a year
On the tomb.

” As he finished this verse, he said, in his emphatic way, “For pure pathos, in my judgment, there is nothing finer than those six lines in the English language!”

A day or two afterward, he asked me to accompany him to the temporary studio, at the Treasury Department, of Mr. Swayne, the sculptor, who was making a bust of him. While he was sitting, it occurred to me to improve the opportunity to secure the promised poem. Upon mentioning the subject, the sculptor surprised me by saying that he had at his home, in Philadelphia, a printed copy of the verses, taken from a newspaper some years previous. The President inquired if they were published in any connection with his name. Mr. Swayne said that they purported to have been written “by Abraham Lincoln.” “I have heard of that before, and that is why I asked,” returned the President. “But there is no truth in it. The poem was first shown to me by a young man named ‘Jason Duncan,’ many years ago.” [60]

The sculptor was using for a studio the office of the Solicitor of the Treasury Department, an irregular room, packed nearly full of law books. Seating myself, I believe, upon a pile of these at Mr. Lincoln's feet, he kindly repeated the lines, which I wrote down, one by one, as they fell from his lips:--

Oh! why should the spirit of mortal be proud?1

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,
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 infant 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 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 depths of the grave. [61]

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 flower 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, we 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 from us all 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 will come;
They joyed — but the tongue of their gladness is dumb.

They died — ay, they died;--we things that are now,
That walk on the turf that lies over their brow,
And 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, 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?


1 the authorship of this poem has been made known since this publication in the evening post. it was written by William Knox, a young Scotchman, a contemporary of sir Walter Scott. He died in Edinburgh, in 1825, at the age of 36.

the two verses in brackets were not repeated by Mr. Lincoln, but belong to the original poem.

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