On the evening of March 25, 1864, Abraham Lincoln sent his young son Tad to fetch a copy of Shakespeare’s plays from the White House library. With the volume in hand, the president recited passages to an audience of one: Francis Bicknell Carpenter, a painter who was working on “First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation of President Lincoln,” a portrait that now hangs in the Capitol.
After a while, Lincoln set down the book. “There is a poem that has been a great favorite with me for years,” he said. Then he closed his eyes and declaimed 56 lines. He knew the words, but nothing else of the poem. “I would give a great deal,” he said, “to know who wrote it, but I never could ascertain.”
The author was William Knox and the title was “Mortality,” though it was perhaps better known by its first line, “O why should the spirit of mortal be proud!” The theme is death, the great leveler that touches saints and sinners, kings and beggars, parents and children. Today, poet and poem would be almost entirely forgotten but for their connection to Lincoln.