Walt Whitman’s renowned poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” is likely to be listed as the most famous poem regarding the American Civil War, if not the death of president Abraham Lincoln. Two hundred words in depth, the poem parallels the United States Sixteenth President as a captain and commander to a great vessel and ship. The captain – resembling Lincoln – is said to have died, yet only after saving the beautiful vessel – likened to the United States. Lincoln, attributed in many iconic images as a president to be revered, has his legacy propagated almost instantaneously by this poem. He is honored immediately in 1865 by Whitman as a fatherly man of the people who saved the Union. Today, this poem is emulated in many cultural forms ( e.g. lines, “O Captain! My Captain! “ are used a term of reverence towards those in positions of leadership). Though, Whitman manages to begin this rally behind only two of the five commemorations of Lincoln in memory. He does not show or venerate Lincoln as “The Great Emancipator,” “The Self Made Man,” or the “Frontier American” in this work because these extra Lincoln personas are not relevant immediately proceeding his death.
The poem is listed below:
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! My Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won:
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Whitman, alive during the death of Lincoln and a Union nurse during the war, had followed Lincoln years before he was shot in Ford’s Theatre (https://livinglincoln.web.unc.edu/2015/03/27/fords-theater-2/) . His first viewing of the astute man was in New York in 1861. Afterwards, Whitman joined the war effort, and it wasn’t until 1864 that their two crossed paths again in Washington, D.C. Several diary entries told of Whitman’s views regarding the then president, but none of them contained such admiration for the man as was present in his poetry. Strangely though, Whitman presents the speaker of the poem to be shocked, horrified, and in deep mourning over the death of a beloved leader; even stranger still is that the charismatic leadership of Lincoln as a captain and hero supersedes the horrific nature and awe that his death produced. Whitman, speaking at lectures both days proceeding Lincoln’s passing and twenty five years afterwards, made several statements as to why he chose to present Lincoln in such glorified light.
“He leaves for America’s history and biography so far not only its most dramatic reminiscence – he leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality. Not but that he had faults and showed them in the Presidency; but honesty, goodness, shrewdness, conscience, and…Unionism, in its truest and amplest sense, formed the hardpan of his character.” (266) – April 16th, 1865
“When, centuries hence…the leading historians and dramatists seek for some personage, some special event, incisive enough to mark with the deepest cut and mnemonize this turbulent nineteenth century of ours…those historians will seek in vain for any point to serve more thoroughly their purpose than Abraham Lincoln’s death.” (279) April 14th, 1890
In both of these statements, Whitman outlines why it is that Lincoln deserves such a special place in the hearts of Americans past, present, and future. He states that his true personality and ability to retain the union allowed for such prominence in American memory. These claims, though bold for the time, are startlingly accurate by today’s standards. Yet what is still unknown is why this was done and why it made sense at the time of his passing. Additionally though, Whitman makes a specific and remarkable observation regarding Lincoln’s memory which highlights possibly why his death propped him upon the pedestal of American theology.
“I say certain secondary and indirect results out of the tragedy of this death are, in my opinion, greatest. Not the event of the murder itself. Not that Lincoln strings the principal points and personages of the period, like beads, upon the single string of his career. Not that his idiosyncrasy, on its sudden appearance and disappearance, stamps this Republic with a stamp more marked and enduring than any yet given by any one man (more even than Washington’s)….” (277) April 14th, 1890.
Here, Whitman notices that it was the indirect effects of mourning Lincoln, not necessarily what he succeeded with during his lifetime, which allows individuals to portray him as more important than Washington. The loss of him, and the somewhat misaligned retrospective analysis of Lincoln as an individual and president – the martyr who saved the union – was what allowed Lincoln to be memorialized in this manner.
Currently, Lincoln’s cultural reverence is reemphasized as “A Man of the People” and the “Keeper of the Union” when movies, TV shows, and songs unintentionally idolize him in this way. The Dead Poets Society, staring the recently deceased Robin Williams, has a famous scene in which a student protests the dismissal of his teacher by standing on a desk and reciting “O Captain! My Captain!” loudly and with force (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j64SctPKmqk). Other references in popular culture have sprouted up over the years, and today, “O Captain! My Captain!” is extremely well known for its Lincoln rhetoric and far less for its prose and style, much like Whitman himself. Ultimately, it is the apotheosis of Lincoln as a man of the people and the martyr who saved the Union that has forever remained as part of the standing memory of the poem, the author, and the president.
Whitman, Walt, Walter Lowenfels, and Nan Braymer. Walt Whitman’s Civil War. New York: Knopf, 1960. N. pag. Print