Wednesday, March 16, 2011

"A Transient Abode."

I love history and was a history major in college. I also love poetry. What follows is a little of both originally posted by Wade Burleson, our son. I thought those who didn't see it on his blog would enjoy it as much as I did.

Oh! Why Should the Spirit of Mortal Be Proud?

This past Monday (March 7, 2011), after making a couple of hospital visits 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?



Rex Ray said...

The spirit of every mortal can only be proud of one thing - if they've been made the Sons of God.

As thought provoking as the poem is, I thought it lacked this one thing. It's almost like reading Ecclesiastes except for Solomon's conclusion of obeying God.

Do we search for things to make us proud, or do we do things from love that we can be proud of?

It's been eight years since I've been to Japan, but my missionary cousin last year said they still talk about me. I thought, 'Ah' but then I think that can be taken two ways. :)

This poem makes me think of another our dad had us to learn.

I walked a mile with laughter
She chatted all the way
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with sorrow
Not a word said she
But oh the things I learned
When sorrow walked with me.

Paul Burleson said...


I hear you. But I personally enjoy and have an appreciation for poetry even when it isn't Christian in content or viewpoint.

This poem does speak to the empty frustrating human condition as you've pointed out. The fact that it doesn't give answers for that condition only makes my message of the gospel more significant it seems to me. In contxt of the Civil war it was a thought provoker albeit no answer giver

Aussie John said...


Good read!

My comment too long, so placed it on my blog

Anonymous said...

I remember the exact moment that I was first aware of the power of poetry to speak 'through words' something far more meaningful than mere language should possibly ever be able to convey.
In my teens, studying British Literature from a huge textbook, I was assigned to read Wm. Wordsworth's 'Tintern Abbey' and did so, when I came across THIS:

". . . For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth;
but hearing oftentimes The still, sad music of humanity,
Nor harsh nor grating, though of ample power
To chasten and subdue.

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts;
a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things."

Some poems stay with you, and become a part of who you are, I think.

Or, maybe, as Emerson might have said: they touch a chord that resonated with something that was already a part of your spirit. :)


Anonymous said...


I just read Wade's story . . . yes, I can see that Wade was placed by the Hand of God in that situation, in order to help that young man.

Hope all is well with the whole family.
What a story! In the midst of our troubles, we find that God is merciful in ways we can't always foresee.


Anonymous said...

I just read the update on Wade's blog.
Oh my goodness.

I look forward to hearing Wade's story of how he helped the prisoner he shared a cell with.

I'm glad the Family is home and safe and together.
It's a shame about the ruined vacation.
But someone today is in the care of Our Saving Lord, who would not have been unless God sent Wade to help him.

Intervention? Absolutely.
God IS good. And His Mercy to us is never-ending.


Ken Colson said...

Paul, just read Wade's 2nd blog. Thinking of you and the family. Happy he is safe.

Aussie John said...


Hadn't read Wade's blog for some time. Didn't realize he was back on line.

My heart goes out to you all in the time you have recently endured.

Praise God for His mercy and grace.

Rex Ray said...

WOW! I've never read a more 'moving' story than Wade's imprisonment. It reminded me of Judson's wife being so sick she crawled to prison to fed her husband.

My sister read Wade's story with more than usual interest. Two months ago, her husband and she had a finder binder with a motorcycle in a foreign country. They did not understand the street markings as they turned into the car rental agency which made them in the wrong. The agency said their insurance would pay damages and suggested they pay $50 for the guy to leave – saying YOU DON'T WANT TO BE HERE WHEN THE POLICE COME.

I think back to a time there were 16 Mexicans returning from a revival in my cargo van with me having no insurance 400 miles into Mexico.

Isn't it amazing what was the worse day of Wade's life, was the best for a lost man.