Haddad: The sometimes hidden beauty of ‘This too shall pass’

American newspaper editor and abolitionist Theodore Tilton reworked the "This Too Shall Pass" fable into a poem called “The King’s Ring.” (PNI illustration made from Persian woodcut, 1576)

American newspaper editor and abolitionist Theodore Tilton reworked the "This Too Shall Pass" fable into a poem called “The King’s Ring.” (PNI illustration made from Persian woodcut, 1576)

“This too shall pass.” This proverb has no doubt been repeated millions of times in many different languages since the COVID-19 pandemic started. The sentiment may be difficult to accept amidst so many hardships from lost jobs, lost businesses and lost lives.

This adage grew from the roots of a Persian fable and became known in the Western world primarily through a 19th-century retelling by the English poet Edward FitzGerald, who crafted the fable “Solomon’s Seal” in 1852 illustrating how the adage had the power to make a sad man happy but, conversely, a happy man sad.

The fable was reportedly also employed in a speech by Abraham Lincoln before he became the sixteenth President of the United States.

But the version I want to share today that I think is most beautiful and powerful was written in 1867 by American newspaper editor and abolitionist Theodore Tilton. He reworked the fable into a poem called “The King’s Ring.” Here again, the retooled adage wields a double-edged sword. It can help us endure the passage of difficult times, or keep our perspective and humility during good times.

Here is the Tilton poem:

The King’s Ring

Once in Persia reigned a King,

Who upon his signet-ring

Graved a maxim true and wise,

Which, if held before his eyes,

Gave him counsel, at a glance,

Fit for every change or chance;

Solemn words, and these are they:

“Even this shall pass away.”

Trains of camels through the sand

Brought him gems from Samarcand;

Fleets of galleys through the seas

Brought him pearls to rival these.

But he counted little gain

Treasures of the mine or main.

“What is wealth?” the King would say;

“Even this shall pass away.”

In the revels of his court,

At the zenith of the sport,

When the palms of all his guests

Burned with clapping at his jests,

He, amid his figs and wine,

Cried, “O loving friends of mine!

Pleasures come, but do not stay:

Even this shall pass away.”

Lady fairest ever seen

Was the bride he crowned the queen.

Pillowed on his marriage-bed,

Whispering to his soul, he said,

“Though no bridegroom never pressed

Dearer bosom to his breast,

Mortal flesh must come to clay:

Even this shall pass away.”

Fighting on a furious field,

Once a javelin pierced his shield.

Soldiers with a loud lament

Bore him bleeding to his tent.

Groaning from his tortured side,

“Pain is hard to bear,” he cried,

“But with patience day by day,

Even this shall pass away.”

Towering in the public square

Twenty cubits in the air,

Rose his statue carved in stone.

Then the King, disguised, unknown,

Gazing at his sculptured name,

Asked himself, “And what is fame?

Fame is but a slow decay:

Even this shall pass away.”

Struck with palsy, sere and old,

Waiting at the Gates of Gold,

Spake he with his dying breath,

“Life is done, but what is Death?”

Then, in answer to the King,

Fell a sunbeam on his ring,

Showing by a heavenly ray -

“Even this shall pass away.”

I believe enduring well is an essential part of the test we must pass while on this Earth together. I am still taking this test. We all are.

I also believe we must have a certain amount of faith and hope as we do all in our power to make things right in this world while also accepting that we don’t have the power to control all outcomes. I’ve been learning these truths and striving to apply them more in my own life. In the past I have sometimes hearkened to gloomy voices in the world. Many a time I entertained unnecessary doubt and worry. But I am learning that worry works against faith and hope. My mother once shared this other saying with me that I have tried to apply in my older years — “Worry is interest paid on money never borrowed.”

May we all strive to endure, live and love well, for this too shall pass.

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