Walt Whitman was a walking, talking poetic encyclopedia. Seriously. Take his first collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, published in 1855. In it, Whitman wrote about so many different things: love, sex, politics, nature (including grass), travel. He then continually revised, edited, and added to this collection until the early 1890s.
Whitman also wrote a lot about his country, the good ol’ U.S. of A. Many poems of the time celebrated the United States with all its struggles as a young and forming nation, and nothing represented those struggles better than the poems Whitman wrote about the Civil War. Although Whitman never fought in the war, he was closely involved as a nurse for the wounded. He also worked as a journalist for newspapers.
Most of Whitman’s time during the war was spent in Washington, D.C., where Whitman apparently would see the young President Abraham Lincoln cruising around town. Well, not cruising exactly. Lincoln took a horse or carriage ride every day, and the poet was often on the side of the road—you know, thinking poetic thoughts and such. As Lincoln passed, the two would bow to each other, though Lincoln may never have known who the gray-bearded man on the side of the road was. Whitman claimed that he could even see Lincoln’s office, lit by candlelight, as Lincoln worked late into the night, burning the midnight…uh, wax. (For more on their relationship, check this out.)
Lincoln remained in office after the Civil War ended. The Union was preserved, and the country began the era of Reconstruction (what was that about? Check out Shmoop’s run-down on Reconstruction and come on back. We’ll wait…). It appeared that President Lincoln had guided the nation back into safer harbors, and the American people respected him greatly for the clear-headed leadership that he provided.
Our man Walt was no exception. Unfortunately, though, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, just five days after the Confederate surrender. Whitman, crushed, held vigil as his hero passed away. To mourn the loss of his president, Whitman wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” and it became what folks in the music biz would call a smash hit single. Whitman became a famous American poet in his own time. The poem itself went through many versions up until the 1891-1892 edition (the last edition) of Leaves of Grass.
If you grew up in the United States, or any other number of democratic republics in this world, you are probably quite used to the idea that you and all other citizens get to vote for people to represent them. It just sounds like the way to go, right? Well, while this seems like quite the fair process, and one that makes sense, that doesn’t mean it comes without difficulties.
This is especially true for the folks who get elected by most…but not all of the people who vote. (And isn’t that always the case? In any election, anywhere from zero to half of the population will have voted against the winner. Still, he or she is expected to represent their opponents’ best interests and wishes as well. Weird and wacky stuff.)
When one such elected official, Abraham Lincoln, became president, the nation was on the verge of civil war. Talk about facing opposition from the group that didn’t vote for you! A lot of citizens, in the South particularly, really didn’t think Lincoln best represented them, and thought they’d be better served by pulling away and doing their own thing.
Hence, the Civil War. The United States had to learn the hard way that a nation is a fragile and changing thing. Lincoln had the responsibility of guiding the country safely through many known and unknown dangers. He had to figure out how to keep the nation intact and feeling well-supported and fairly represented, throughout—no easy task.
When you read “O Captain! My Captain!,” think about how much faith you and other people in your country put into your leaders. Walt Whitman had a lot of faith in Abraham Lincoln. (His essay “The Eighteenth Presidency” called for an ideal leader like Lincoln to rise up from the common people so as to guide the nation to maturity.) During the war, Whitman watched Lincoln go to work almost every day. And when the war was over, Whitman hoped that the country could begin to heal.
The assassination of Lincoln struck him as a deeply personal loss, probably in a way that might seem strange to us today. After all, our leaders seem like so many talking heads on our TV screens, right? But should it be that way? Don’t we have a vested, and personal, interest in the success of our leaders, and the path that our country takes? Aren’t we, like Whitman writes, all in the same boat together? If you agree, then this poem will only ramp up your patriotic spirit. If you disagree, read it anyway. We have a feeling that Whitman’s powerful language just might change your mind.