We live in deeds

We live in deeds, not years ; in thoughts, not breaths ;

In feelings, not in figures on a dial.

We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives

Who thinks most—feels the noblest—acts the best.

Philip James Bailey (1816-1902)

This illustrated, hand-printed poem in its simple matte and frame is one of my few mementos from my uncle Edwin Lybarger II, who died in 1942.

My uncle Eddie was named for his grandfather, a civil war veteran. Eddie was handsome and died young. When I was little, he was forever watching us from a dusty frame on my grandmother’s piano. No one ever talked about him.

Years later, I found a box of his papers. He acted in plays in high school, wrote poems, drew pictures. Girls made friends with his three sisters in hopes that he’d pay attention to them. He paid my mother a nickel for laying out his clothes when he was going on a date. His father made him go to college to study engineering.

After five semesters, he left college and didn’t write. The next time the family heard from him he had enlisted in the Army. He died at 24. There was a photo of a woman in his wallet, no name or date.

I eventually discovered the verse was from English poet Philip James Bailey’s very long poem, Festus. An excerpt:

This life’s a mystery.

The value of a thought cannot be told;

But it is clearly worth a thousand lives

Like many men’s. And yet men love to live

As if mere life were worth their living for.

What but perdition will it be to most?

Life’s more than breath and the quick round of blood

:

It is a great spirit and a busy heart.

The coward and the small in soul scarce do live.

One generous feeling—one great thought—one deed

Of good, ere night, would make life longer seem

Than if each year might number a thousand days, —

Spent as is this by nations of mankind.

We live in deeds, not years ; in thoughts, not breaths ;

In feelings, not in figures on a dial.

We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives

Who thinks most—feels the noblest—acts the best.

Life’s but a means unto an end—that end,

Beginning, mean and end to all things— God.

The dead have til the glory of the world.

Why will we live and not be glorious ?

Festus was apparently well-known after it was written, in 1839, and reprinted for years, in England and America. One critic attributed its author, Philip James Bailey, with “the encouragement of poetic lawlessness..a great corrupter of taste.” From the New York Times, July 28, 1889.