The skull as a symbol is not used in Freemasonry except in Masonic Templarism, where it is a symbol of mortality. Among the Articles of Accusation sent by the Pope to the Bishops and Papal Commissaries upon Which to examine the Knights Templar, those from the forty-seeond to the fifty seventh refer to the human skull, Cranium humanus, which the Templars were accused of using in their reception, and worshiping as an idol. It is possible that the Old Templars made use of the skull in their ceremony of reception; but Modern Templars will readily acquit their predecessors of the crime of idiolatry, and find in their use of a skull a symbolic design (see Baphomet).
Of this symbol of mortality, the skull, much has been written and when found of suitable service quoted with effect at Masonic meetings. About 1860 Brother J. S. Parvin of Iowa received a copy of a poem entitled Lines to a Skeleton as printed in a newspaper published at Glasgow, Scotland. He was struck with its beauty and used it in his Knight Templar work, he at that time being Eminent Commander of the local Commandery. A similar experience befell Brother Eugene S. Elliott of Wisconsin but brother Parvin is believed to have been first to use the poem as above described and it soon became vers popular and is still generally used. The popularity of the poem has caused it to be paraphrased by several Brethren, Denman S. Wagstaff, New Age Magazine, April 1917 (page 178); Newton Newkirk, .Missouri Freemason, October 29, 1904; and copies of others published by H. D. Loveland, California, Nortnan T. Cassette, and so on are in our possession but lack particulars of first place of publication.
However, the original also has its uncertainties. The Square and Compass, Denver, July, 1923, page 44, says “The poem was written by Robert Philip of Gormyre Cottage, Scotland. He wrote the verses unite Watching for ‘body snatchers’ in the parish churchyard of Torphichen where during the repairing of the church the unearthing of a skeleton suggested the subject.” Clothes C. GX Hunt, (grand Secretary of Iowa’s) has kindly investigated the matter for us, sprites “In 1816 the manuscript of the poem was found in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons at London near a perfect human skeleton.
The attendant who found it handed it to the curator of the museum and he in turn sent it to the London Morning Chronicle for publication.
The first authentic record that we have of the poem is its appearance in the London Chronicle in 1816. It excited so much attention that a reward of fifty guineas was offered for information that would lead to the discovery of its author. This was without avail, however, as the author preserved his incognito and to this day no one knows who he was. Thus you will note the similarity in the fact that the author of the poem as well as the former occupant of the skeleton about whom it was written remain unknown.”
Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, 1922 (page 687), credits the ode to Anna Jane Vardill (Mrs. James Niven) and it did appear in the European Magazine, November, 1816, signed with the initial “V 2 But Brother Hunt points out that the poetess denied the authorship and the coincidence of the initial is the only thing to connect her with the poem. The Subject came up frequently in Notes and Queries, London, and usually was credited to Miss Vardill but has been claimed for J. D. Gordman and Robert Philip, the latter in 1826. The lines are listed as anonymous in Edith Granger’s Index to Poetry and Recitations, Chicago, 1904, McClurg.
Behold this ruin, ‘Twas a skull
Once of ethereal spirit full.
This narrow cell was Life’s retreat,
This space was Thought’s mysterious seat.
What beauteous visions filled this spot
What dreams of pleasure long forgot∴
Nor hope, nor joy, nor love, nor fear
Have left one trace on record here.
Beneath this mouldering canopy
Once shone the bright and busy eye:
But start not at the dismal vold—
If Social love that eye employed.
If with no lawless fire it gleamed
But through the dews of kindness beamed;
That eye shall be forever bright
When stars and sun are sunk in night.
Within this hollow cavern hung
The ready, swift, and tuneful tongue
If Falsehood’s honey it disdained,
And when it could not praise was chained.
If bold in Virtue’s cause it spoke
Yet gentle concord never broke—
This silent tongue shall plead for thee
When Time unveils Eternity.
Say, did these fingers delve the mine
Or with the envied rubies shine∴
To hew the rock or wear a gem
Can little now avail to them.
But if the page of truth they sought
Or comfort to the mourner brought
These hands a richer meed shall claim
Than all that wait on Wealth and Fame.
Avails it whether lottre or shod
These feet the paths of duty trod∴
If from the bowers of Ease they fled. To seek Afflietion’s humble shed.
If Grandeur’s guilty bribe they spurned,
And home to Virtue’s cot returned—
These feet with angel wings shall vie,
And tread the palace of the sky.
There is an earlier poem of 1808 by Lord Byron on the skull. He tells of it in his conversations with Medwin; “The gardener in digging discovered a skull that had probably belonged to some jolly friar or monk of the abbey (Newstead Abbey) about the time it was demonstrated. Observing it to be of giant size and in a perfect state of preservation, a strange fancy seized me of having it set and mounted as a drinking cup. I accordingly sent it to town, and it returned with a very high polish, and of a mottled color like tortoise shell.” Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
I lived, I loved, I quaffed like thee:
I died: let earth my bones resign:
Fill up—thou canst not injure me
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.
Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood
And eirele in the goblet’s shape
The drink of Gods, than reptile’s food.
Where Once my wit, perchance hath shone,
In aid of others let me shine
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine∴
Quaff while thou eanst, another race
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace
And rhyme and revel with the dead.
Why not∴ since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce
Redeem’d from worms and wasting elay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use.