The Life, Public Services and State Papers of Abraham Lincoln

By Henry J. Raymond

Anecdotes and Reminiscences of President Lincoln


The evening of March 22d, 1864, was a most interesting one to me. I was with the President alone in his office for several hours. Busy with pen and papers when I went in, he presently threw them aside and commenced talking to me of Shakspeare, of whom he was very fond. Little "Tad," his son, coming in, he sent him to the library for a copy of the plays, and then read to me 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 which has been a great favorite with me for years, which was first shown to me when a young man by a friend, and which I afterwards saw and cut from a newspaper and learned by heart. I would," he continued, "give a great deal to know who wrote it, but I have never been able to ascertain."

Then, half closing his eyes, he repeated the verses to me. Greatly pleased and interested, I told him I would like some time to write them down. A day or two afterwards, he asked me to accompany him to the temporary studio in the Treasury Department of Mr. Swayne, the sculptor, who was making a bust of him. While "sitting," it occurred to me that then would be a good opportunity to secure the lines. He very willingly complied with my request to repeat them, and, sitting upon some books at his feet, as nearly as I remember, I wrote the verses down, one by one, as he uttered them: * --

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.

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?

Discussing briefly the merits of this poem, and its probable authorship, Mr. Lincoln continued:--

"There are some quaint, queer verses, written, I think, by Oliver Wendell Holmes, entitled 'The Last Leaf,' 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!"

Mr. R. McCormick, in some "Reminiscences," published in the Evening Post, says that Mr. Lincoln was fond of the works of Robert Burns; and although I myself never heard him allude to the great Scottish poet, I can readily conceive that it may have been true. "There was something," says Mr. McCormick, "in the humble origin of Burns, and in his checkered life, no less than in his tender, homely songs, that appealed to the great heart of the plain man who, transferred from the prairies of Illinois to the Executive Mansion at Washington at a time of immense responsibility, gave a fresh and memorable illustration of the truth that

'The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The man's the gowd for a' that.'"


* The authorship of this poem has been made known since its publication in the Evening Post. It was written by William Knox, a young Scotchman, a contemporary of Sir Walter Scott--who thought highly of his promise. He died quite young.

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

Book Navigation Title Page Preface Illustrations Memorandum Table of Contents   ► Chapter I.   ► Chapter II.   ► Chapter III.   ► Chapter IV.   ► Chapter V.   ► Chapter VI.   ► Chapter VII.   ► Chapter VIII.   ► Chapter IX.   ► Chapter X.   ► Chapter XI.   ► Chapter XII.   ► Chapter XIII.   ► Chapter XIV.   ► Chapter XV.   ► Chapter XVI.   ► Chapter XVII.   ► Chapter XVIII.   ► Chapter XIX.   ► Chapter XX.   ► Chapter XXI. Anecdotes and Reminiscences of President Lincoln.   ► Mr. Lincoln's Sadness   ► His Favorite Poem   ► His Religious Experience   ► His Sympathy   ► His Humor, Shrewdness, and Sentiment   ► The Emancipation Proclamation Appendix. Letters on Sundry Occasions.   ► To Mr. Lodges, of Kentucky   ► To General Hooker   ► To John B. Fry   ► To Governor Magoffin   ► To Count Gasparin   ► The President and General McClellan   ► Warnings Against Assassination Reports, Dispatches, and Proclamations Relating to the Assassination.   ► Secretary Stanton to General Dix   ► The Death-Bed   ► The Assassins   ► Reward Offered by Secretary Stanton   ► Flight of the Assassins   ► The Conspiracy Organized in Canada   ► Booth Killed. Harold Captured   ► Reward Offered by President Johnson   ► The Funeral Official Announcements   ► Acting Secretary Hunger to Minister Adams   ► Acting Secretary Hunter to his Subordinates   ► Orders from Secretary Stanton and General Grant   ► Orders from Secretary "Welles   ► Order from Secretary McCulloch   ► Order from Postmaster-General Dennison   ► Proclamation by President Johnson of a Day of Humiliation and Mourning.   ► Secretary Stanton to Minister Adams   ► Important Letter from J. Wilkes Booth   ► Indictment of the Conspirators   ► The Finding of the Court