O Captain! My Captain! Abraham Lincoln and Walt Whitman
By David J. Kent
Friday, April 23, 2021
Early on the morning of August 12, 1864, poet Walt Whitman watches from his Washington, DC home as President Abraham Lincoln travels from the Old Soldier’s Home to the White House for a day’s work. Whitman would go on to write, not one, but two great poems about our 16th President.
The Old Soldier’s Home, now called President Lincoln’s Cottage, was a respite from the mosquito-infested swamps abutting the Executive Mansion. The heat, humidity, and pestilence drove the Lincoln family about three miles north of the White House each summer beginning in 1862. Mary, despondent over the death of son Willie, likely from typhoid caused by well water polluted from the tens of thousands of soldiers and horses dumping waste upstream of the open sewer that was the Potomac River, desperately needed a change of locale. Lincoln himself needed a breather after days spent besieged by office seekers, inventors, and crackpots lined up for their turn to imping upon the President’s time. He would travel by horse or buggy each day during the summer months. Walt Whitman would watch him pass, noting that they had begun to recognize each other with a formal nod each day.
“Mr. Lincoln . . . generally rides a good-sized, easy-going gray horse, is dress’d in plain black, somewhat rusty and dusty; [and] wears a black stiff hat . . . I see very plainly [his] dark brown face, with the deep cut lines, the eyes, &c., always to me with a latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we always exchange bows, and very cordial ones.”
After Lincoln’s assassination, Walt Whitman writes a poem of mourning called “O Captain! My Captain!,” which begins:
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.
Whitman’s more epic effort is the poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” In it Whitman never mentions Lincoln or the circumstances of his death. Instead he uses free verse in the form of an elegy, the first-person monologue lamenting death. Stretching on for 16 cantos ranging in length from five to 53 lines. Like his renowned poetry collection Leaves of Grass, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” evolved over several iterations in time to its present form.