Actually, I have no idea how Abraham Lincoln observed New Year’s Eve, but I do have a strong suspicion about what passed through his mind as one year gave way to the next.
I spent this morning in a coffee shop with a book titled Herndon’s Informants. The “Herndon” in the title refers to William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s long-time law partner in Springfield, Illinois. In the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, Herndon became convinced that the country was transforming the late president into a mythical figure bearing no resemblance to the man he had worked alongside for nearly two decades. To prevent this crime against history, he set out to write a biography of his friend and partner that would set the record straight. He spent much of the next two years tracking down individuals who had known Lincoln personally. Herndon’s Informants embodies the fruit of that labor. Compiled and edited by scholars almost a century and a half later, it is a collection of more than eight hundred pages of written and oral reminiscences from more than two hundred and fifty friends, relatives, neighbors, and associates who claimed to know Lincoln well.
I’ve been working my way through this hefty volume for some time now, but two things especially struck me as I read this New Year’s Eve. First, countless informants independently testified that, although Lincoln was fond of well-known poets such as Robert Burns and Lord Byron, his favorite poem was by the little-known Scottish poet William Knox (1789-1825). The poem, “Mortality,” is a dreary litany of human hopelessness in fourteen ever-more gloomy verses. Knox’s main goal seemed to have been to remind his readers of the certainty of death and the vanity of life. Here is his first verse:
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.
Like the author of the Old Testament book of Ecclesiastes, Knox stressed repeatedly that death is no respecter of persons. In Ecclesiastes chapter 2, the Preacher observes that although “wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness . . . the same event happens to them all.” Hear Knox’s echo:
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.
“Mortality” begins and ends with futility. The world it describes is a closed universe with scarcely a hint of a divine Author. Life is short and then you die. Here is the poem’s last verse, which Lincoln, reportedly, viewed as particularly eloquent:
‘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?
Lincoln learned “Mortality” by heart and recited it often. A storekeeper who knew Lincoln in the 1820s remembered him relating it. So did a lawyer who traveled the circuit with Lincoln in the 1850s. The latter recalled Lincoln saying that to him “it sounded as much like true poetry as any thing he had ever heard.”
In my reading this morning I also learned that, as a teenager, Lincoln had transcribed some ostensibly similar verses into his copybook. Reproduced exactly, they read as follows: “Time What an emty vaper tis and days how swift they are swift as an indian arrow fly on like a shooting star.”
Here again we’re confronted with the brevity of life, albeit from a very different writer, and for a very different purpose. If you don’t recognize these lines–as I did not–they come from the prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Lincoln clearly wasn’t copying them directly from a hymnal–the misspellings testify to that–so it seems likely that he had heard the words sung and was doing his semi-literate best to preserve them from memory. They come from Watts’s hymn, written before 1707, “The Shortness of Life and the Goodness of God.” Here are all seven verses as recorded in an 1821 edition of the hymn-writer’s works:
Time! what an empty vapour ’tis!
And days how swift they are!
Swift as an Indian arrow flies,
Or like a shooting star.
The present moments just appear,
Then slide away in haste,
That we can never say, “They’re here,”
But only say, “They’re past.”
Our life is ever on the wing,
And death is ever nigh;
The moment when our lives begin
We all begin to die.
Yet, mighty God, our fleeting days
Thy lasting favours share,
Yet with the bounties of thy grace
Thou load’st the rolling year.
‘Tis sovereign mercy finds us food,
And we are cloth d with love;
While grace stands pointing out the road
That leads our souls above.
His goodness runs an endless round;
All glory to the Lord:
His mercy never knows a bound,
And be his Name ador’d!
Thus we begin the lasting song,
And when we close our eyes,
Let the next age thy praise prolong
Till time and nature dies.
Significantly, the young Lincoln did his best to record the first two verses but then he stopped, even though the full hymn continues for another five verses. I found myself wondering why: Did his memory fail him? Did the unfamiliar labor of writing grow tiresome? Or did the poor youngster in Indiana find it hard to relate to the latter part of Watts’s hymn?
Although Watts’s hymn starts similarly to Knox’s poem, it eventually transitions to words of comfort and hope. As the hymn’s title suggests, Watts would have us understand the shortness of life in light of the goodness of God.
Yes, Watts agrees, our days “slide away in haste” and “death is ever nigh.” Yet that’s far from the whole story. God showers our brief sojourns with the hallmarks of His favor: mercy, love, and grace. And death–though inescapable–is not the end. We “close our eyes” to awake in a new age with a song on our lips for eternity.
One of the most repetitive observations of Scripture is the simple truth that our lives are short. We read that our days on earth are akin to a “breath” (Job 7:7), a “passing shadow” (Psalm 14:4), a “puff of smoke” (James 4:14). I think it’s good to dwell on this truth as the year comes to a close, but as Isaac Watts reminds us, we mustn’t stop there.
May God bless you all in 2017.