Abraham Lincoln's Favorite Poem

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President Abraham Lincoln is shown in a formal portrait, year unknown. (AP)
President Abraham Lincoln is shown in a formal portrait, year unknown. (AP)

By: Alex Ashlock

On Feb. 20, 1862, 150 years ago, young William Wallace Lincoln, third son of President Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary, died. He was just 11 years old and the likely cause was typhoid fever. You have to wonder if the president in his grief that day turned to his favorite poem for solace, a poem he had always loved but didn't know the author of at the time. It's called "Mortality."

John Miller, director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College, tells the story of Lincoln's love for the verse in a recent article in Wall Street Journal.

"Lincoln was a lifelong fan of poetry," Miller told Robin Young. "He liked Robert Burns, he liked Lord Byron. He had good taste in poetry. This was his favorite poem. He first encountered it when he was in his 20s. It was given to him by a friend in Illinois. It was probably printed anonymously in newspaper. He loved it he memorized it and he would perform it, but he didn't know the author of it until just before he died."

It turns out the author of "Mortality" was the Scottish poet William Knox, and it's unrelentingly about death, how it comes to us all. And something Lincoln has seen plenty of. His mother died when he was a boy. His sister died when he was a teenager. The young girl he loved and wanted to marry, Ann Rutledge, died when he was in his 20s. I remember the author Joshua Shenk telling us a few years ago that after Ann died, Lincoln could not bear to see rain fall on her grave.

"And of course he was the president, and during the Civil War hundreds of thousands of young men died on battlefields, so he was surrounded by death," Miller said. "He thought about it a lot."

Lincoln recited the 56 lines of "Mortality" so many times that people thought he had written it. Finally late in the Civil War, a listener recognized it, told the president who the author was, and sent him a copy of the collected works of William Knox.

Miller says there's a story that's been passed down that Lincoln performed the poem a final time hours before he was shot on April 14, 1865, at Ford's Theater. "The evidence for this is not good," Miller said, "but it's interesting to think that it might be true."

This segment aired on February 20, 2012.


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