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One Crowded Hour Survives an Age Without a Name

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While participating in a forum, I noticed a fellow participant's post which included the following quote:

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
To all the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

Walter Scott
T.O. Mordaunt

That quote struck a chord with me, and my curiosity was peaked that the authorship seemed to be in question. “Was it true that nobody knew who the real author was?”, I thought to myself.

Not being one to let my curious questions remain unanswered, I quickly did a google search for the quote, and sure enough, it seemed at first glance that nobody knew. Some quote banks credited the authorship to Sir Walter Scott, others credited Thomas Osbert Mordaunt, and still others credited both of them. This seemed very odd, so I decided that one way to be sure, was to go directly to the source.

I started by researching Sir Walter Scott. He was born in Edinburgh, Scottland in 1771, where he launched his career as a poet and writer. He published many works, many of them anonymously, so it is understandable that the verse which appeared as a chapter heading in his 1816 novel Old Mortality, and attributed to anonymous, was later assumed to be written by Sir Walter Scott himself, as it was so in line with his style of writing. Below is an image of  the verse as it appeared in an 1878 edition of Old Mortality.


At the time I first read this, I was not aware of Scott's habit of publishing anonymously, so I immediately concluded that the verse could not have been authored by him, on account of his own admission. So I turned my attention to Thomas Osbert Mordaunt.

A Poem, said to be written by Major Mordaunt during the last German War. Never before published.**

Go, lovely boy!* to yonder tow'r
The fame of Janus, ruthless King!
And shut, O! shut the brazen door,
And here the keys in triumph bring.

Full many a tender heart hath bled,
Its joys in Belgia's soil entomb'd:
Which thou to Hymen's smiling bed,
And length of sweetest hours had doom'd.

Oh, glory! you to ruin owe
The fairest plume the hero wears:
Raise the bright helmet from his brow;
You'll mock beneath the manly tears.

Who does not burn to place the crown
Of conquest on his Albion's head?
Who weeps not at her plaintive moan,
To giver her hapless orphans bread?

Forgive, ye brave, the generous fault,
If thus my virtue falls; alone
My Delia stole my earliest thought,
And fram'd its feelings by her own.

Her mind so pure, her face so fair;
Her breast the seat of softest love;
It seemed her words an angel's were,
Her gentle percepts from above.

My mind thus form'd, to misery gave
The tender tribute of a tear:
O! Belgia, open thy vast grave,
For I could pour and ocean there.

When first you show'd me at your feet
Pale liberty, religion tied,
I flew to shut the glorious gate
Of freedom on a tyrant's pride.

Tho great the cause, so wore with woes,
I can not but lament the deed:
My youth to melancholy bows,
An Clotho trifles with my thread.

But stop, my Clio, wanton muse,
Indulge not this unmanly strain:
Beat, beat the drums, my ardor rouse,
And call the soldier back again.

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife,
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

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Go then, thou little lovely boy,
I can not, must not, hear thee now;
And all thy soothing arts employ
To sooth my Delia of her wo.

If the gay flow'r, in all its youth,
Thy scythe of glory here must meet;
Go, bear my laurel, pledge of truth,
And lay it at my Delia's feet.

Her tears shall keep it ever green,
To crown the image in her breast;
Till death doth close the hapless scene,
And calls its angel home to rest.

* Cupid.
** As originally printed, according to the Literary Digest, Sept. 11, 1920.

Thomas Osbert Mordaunt lived from 1729 to 1809. He was a military man who achieved the rank of Lieutenant General in the British Army, and is credited for having originally written the verse as a Major during the Seven Year War between Austria and Prussia (1756-1763). This predates the publication of Old Mortality by at least 53 years. The verse, commonly referred to as The Call, is the eleventh of the original fourteen verse poem, and it was originally written as follows:

Sound, sound the clarion, fill the fife!
Throughout the sensual world proclaim,
One crowded hour of glorious life
Is worth an age without a name.

Notice that Scott replaced the word “Throughout” with the words “To all”. It is quite probable that having read the verse several years earlier, Scott recalled it from memory with his own subtle variation to place at the head of the chapter in Old Mortality, and being unsure of the source, attributed it to Anonymous.

Although Mordaunt undoubtedly achieved a name for himself, through his military achievements, and great respect as an elected Fellow of the Royal Society, his name would have been all but forgotten were it not for a set of very curious circumstances, for which we have Sir Scott to credit.

You see, there remains little record of Mordaunt's life and accomplishments, beyond his career in the military, his genealogy, and his birth and burial. It seems certain that Mordaunt was not a prolific poet, but rather achieved lasting recognition by mere chance. The earliest known printing of Mordaunt's poem occurred in the October 12, 1791 edition of The Bee, a literary weekly published in Edinburgh, Scotland. The poem was published with the title, “A Poem, said to be written by Major Mordaunt during the last German War. Never before published.” The poem included 14 stanzas, the 11th being the famous quotation referenced in Old Mortality. Without doubt, this poem would have remained forever forgotten, had Scott not acquired a copy, read it, and later added the verse to Old Mortality. Though a copy of the October 12, 1791 issue of the Bee was found in Scott's Library after his death, It was not until the summer of 1920 that Mr. James Rankin of Galashiels discovered the connection that would finally bestow the fame and recognition long overdue to Thomas Osbert Mordaunt. So it finally happened for Mr. Mordaunt, that in 1920, his “age without a name” came to a close.

It seems only fitting to me, that while the original version of the verse should be attributed solely to Mordaunt, Scott's version may share attribution, with an and, not an or, since it is likely that without Scott, Mordaunt would have remained forever forgotten. Besides who's to say that Scott's fame, and his minor modification, didn't contribute greatly to the popularity of the verse, thus preserving it?

I wonder, if Scott had not attributed the verse anonymously, and generations of scholars had not attributed the verse to Scott, already a famous author, would this verse ever have gained such popularity? What do you think?

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TOMAS on October 30, 2012:

Mussolini said : "it is better to live one day as a lion than a thousand years as a lamb"

Taylor (author) from Nampa, ID on April 25, 2012:

Thanks for sharing.

oldchurch on April 25, 2012:

A part of this quote was used as the title of a book written by Sjovald Cunyngham-Brown, his biography, entitled One Crowded Hour and the quote is attribited to T O Mordaunt. Cunningham-Brown was a facinating character who I knew personally and the title summed up his life beautifully.

Dudley Roberts on January 15, 2011:

Very interesting - the last line is used a the solution to a clue in the Guardian's Saturday Prize crossword, so there may be more hits here.

BTW, the book is available in its near entirety in Google books. Each chapter is headed by an attributed (where known) quotation.

Taylor (author) from Nampa, ID on January 06, 2011:

Thanks for all of the comments. I am happy that my curiosity has led me to produce something that could satisfy the interests and curiosities of others.

brigitte muir on December 27, 2010:

Thank you. I had read the quote in Tim Bowden's biography, " One Crowded Hour". It came back to mind proof reading a book written by a friend and I wondered who wrote it. Now I know!

Lisa Campbell on July 20, 2010:

Excellent discourse. Just discovered the second half

of this verse on the PBS program "As Time Goes By"

and found this superb article rather quickly.

Thank you "getting there" - stay curious!

VivekSri on July 08, 2010:


Simon from NJ, USA on October 21, 2009:

You make a very interesting comment - I often wonder similar things - for instance, recently a painting that sold for $19,000 suddenly became worth millions when it was revealed that Da Vinci (I think) painted it - why would the painting be worth more? it is the same painting - it doesn't matter who painted England several years ago, a famous artist piled some bricks up called it art and sold it for $1,000,000 - I could do the same - wonder if anyone would give me $1,000,000!

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