Sunday, July 9, 2023

Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln, a Concise Overview.

In 1856, Walt Whitman wrote a lengthy description of his ideal president: a "heroic" figure who was cunning and bold in temperament and knowledgeable about the world, a "Lincolnesque figure," according to Whitman biographer Justin Kaplan. He also opined on this hypothetical president's physical attributes: bearded and dressed in "a clean suit of working attire." Whitman explicitly mentions blacksmiths and boatmen as ideal precursor occupations. Two years later, Whitman first said Lincoln by name in writing. That year, he supported Stephen Douglas over Lincoln for election to the United States Senate. Whitman first saw Lincoln as the president-elect traveling through New York City on February 19, 1861. Whitman noticed Lincoln's "striking appearance" and "unpretentious dignity" and trusted his "supernatural tact" and "idiomatic Western genius." Whitman's admiration of Lincoln steadily grew in the following years; in October 1863, Whitman wrote in his diary, "I love the President personally."
President Abraham Lincoln. 1863

Although they never met, Whitman estimated in a letter he saw Lincoln about twenty to thirty times between 1861 and 1865, sometimes at close quarters. Lincoln passed Whitman several times and nodded to him, interactions that Whitman detailed in letters to his mother. Lincoln biographer William Barton writes there was little "evidence of recognition," and Lincoln likely nodded to many passersby as he traveled. Whitman and Lincoln were in the same room twice: at a reception in the White House following Lincoln's first inauguration in 1861 and when Whitman visited John Hay, Lincoln's private secretary, at the White House.

In August 1863, Whitman wrote in The New York Times, "I see the president almost every day." Later that year, Whitman wrote a letter about Lincoln describing the president's face as a "Hoosier Michel Angelo, so awful ugly it becomes beautiful." In the letter, he described Lincoln as captaining the "ship of state."] Whitman considered himself and Lincoln "afloat in the same stream" and "rooted in the same ground." They shared similar views on slavery and the Union—both men opposed allowing slavery to expand across the U.S. but considered preserving the Union more critical. Whitman consistently supported Lincoln's politics, and similarities have been noted in their literary styles and inspirations. Whitman later said, "Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else."

It remains unclear how much Lincoln knew about Whitman, though he knew of him and his admiration for him. There is an account of Lincoln reading Leaves of Grass in his office and another of the president saying, "Well, he looks like a man!" upon seeing Whitman in Washington, D.C., but these accounts may be fictitious. Whitman was present at Lincoln's second inauguration in 1865 and left D.C. shortly after to visit his family.

On April 15, 1865, shortly after the end of the American Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated. Whitman was residing in Brooklyn while on a break from his job at the Department of the Interior when he heard the news. He recalled that although breakfast was served, the family did not eat and "not a word was spoken all day."

In 1875, Whitman published Memoranda During the War. The book, a collection of diary entries, includes a telling of Lincoln's assassination from the perspective of someone who was present. The New York Sun published that section in 1876 to a positive reception. Whitman, by then in failing health, presented himself as neglected, unfairly criticized, and deserving of pity in the form of financial aid. Richard Watson Gilder and several of Whitman's other friends soon suggested he give a "Lincoln Lectures" series aimed at raising both funds and Whitman's profile. Whitman adapted his New York Sun article for the lectures.
Whitman gave a series of lectures on Lincoln from 1879 to 1890. They centered on the assassination and covered the years leading up to and during the American Civil War. Whitman occasionally gave poetry readings, such as "O Captain! My Captain!.' The lectures were generally popular and well-received. In 1980, Whitman's biographer Justin Kaplan wrote that Whitman's 1887 lecture in New York City and its after-party marked the closest he came to "social eminence on a large scale.'

In 1885, Whitman contributed an essay about his experiences with Lincoln to a volume compiled by Allen Thorndike Rice. Novelist Bram Stoker gave at least one lecture on Lincoln and discussed the deceased president with Whitman in November 1886. The two met when Stoker wrote a lengthy letter to Whitman in 1872 and were friends afterward. Robert J. Havlik, in the Walt Whitman Quarterly, noted that their "mutual respect for Lincoln" was the foundation of their relationship.

Whitman's Poetry on Abraham Lincoln
Walt Whitman's first poem on Lincoln's assassination was "Hush'd Be the Camps To-Day," dated April 19, 1865—the day of Lincoln's funeral in Washington. Near the publication of Drum-Taps, Whitman decided the collection would be incomplete without a poem on Lincoln's death and hastily added "Hush'd Be the Camps To-Day.' He halted further distribution of the work and stopped publication on May 1, primarily to develop his Lincoln poems. He followed that poem with "O Captain! My Captain!" and "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd.' "My Captain" first appeared in The Saturday Press on November 4, 1865, and was published with "Lilacs" in Sequel to Drum-Taps around the same time. Although Sequel to Drum-Taps had been published in early October, copies were not ready for distribution until December. English professor Amanda Gailey described Whitman's decision to publish "My Captain" in The Saturday Press as a teaser for Sequel.
Walt Whitman
In 1866, Whitman's friend William D. O'Connor published The Good Gray Poet: A Vindication, a short, promotional work for Whitman. O'Connor presented Whitman as Lincoln's "foremost poetic interpreter,' proclaiming "Lilacs" as "the grandest and the only grand funeral music poured around Lincoln's bier.'

Whitman did not compose "This Dust Was Once the Man,' his fourth on Lincoln, until 1871. The four poems were first grouped together in the "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" cluster of Passage to India (1871). Ten years later, in a later edition of Leaves of Grass, the grouping was named "Memories of President Lincoln.' The poems were not revised substantially following their publication.

Whitman wrote two other poems on Lincoln's assassination that were not included in the cluster. Shortly before Whitman's death, he wrote a final poem with the president as its subject, titled "Abraham Lincoln, Born February 12, 1809," in honor of Lincoln's birthday. It appeared in the New York Herald on February 12, 1888. The poem has only two lines and is not well known.

Whitman's Interpretation of Lincoln
Shortly after Lincoln's assassination, hundreds of poems were composed about his death. Historian Stephen B. Oates wrote that the American public had never mourned the death of a head of state so profoundly. Whitman was ready and willing to write poetry on the topic, seizing the opportunity to present himself as an "interpreter of Lincoln" to increase the readership of Leaves of Grass while honoring a man he admired. In 2004, Pannapacker described poetry as a "mixture of innovation and opportunism." Scholar Daniel Aaron writes that "Whitman placed himself and his work in the reflected limelight" of Lincoln's death.

The work of poets like Whitman and Lowell helped to establish Lincoln as the "first American,' epitomizing the newly reunited America. Whitman portrayed Lincoln using metaphors such as the captain of the ship of state and made his assassination a monumental event. Aaron wrote that Whitman treated Lincoln's death as a moment that could unite the American people. The historian Merrill D. Peterson wrote similarly, noting that Whitman's poetry placed Lincoln's assassination firmly in the American consciousness. Kaplan considers responding to Lincoln's death to have been Whitman's "crowning challenge." However, he believes Whitman's poems, such as "My Captain" and "Lilacs," to be less bold and emotionally direct than his earlier work.

Pannapacker concludes that Whitman reached the "heights of fame" through his poetry on Lincoln. He fashioned Lincoln as the "redeemer of the promise of American democracy." The philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum considers Lincoln to be the only individual subject of love in Whitman's poetry. The Chilean critic Armando Donoso wrote that Lincoln's death allowed Whitman to find significance in his feelings surrounding the Civil War. Several critics consider Whitman's response to Lincoln's death to memorialize all those who had died in the Civil War. For Whitman, Lincoln's death was the culmination of all the tragedies the Civil War had brought, according to scholar Betsy Erlikka.

Critics have noted Whitman's departure from his earlier poetry in his Lincoln poems; for instance, in 1932, Floyd Stovall felt that Whitman's "barbaric yawp" had been "silenced" and replaced by a more sentimental side; he noted an undercurrent of melancholy arising from the subject of death. Ed Folsom argues that, although Whitman may have struggled with his success coming from work uncharacteristic of his other poetry, he decided that acceptance was "preferable to exclusion and rejection"

Walt Whitman's Poems in "Memories of President Lincoln"
HUSH'D be the camps to-day,
And soldiers let us drape our war-worn weapons,
And each with musing soul retire to celebrate,
Our dear commander's death.

No more for him life's stormy conflicts,
Nor victory, nor defeat—no more time's dark events,
Charging like ceaseless clouds across the sky.

But sing poet in our name,
Sing of the love we bore him—because you, dweller in camps,
know it truly.

As they invault the coffin there,
Sing—as they close the doors of earth upon him—one verse,
For the heavy hearts of soldiers.

O CAPTAIN! my captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people are exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
But O heart! heart! heart!
Leave you not the little spot,
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;
O captain! dear father!
This arm I push beneath you;
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:
But the ship, the ship is anchor'd safe, 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 silent tread,
Walk the spot my captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

THIS dust was once the man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute, under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.

WHEN lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

powerful western fallen star!
shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
great star disappear'd—O the black murk that hides the star!
cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,

With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.)

Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep'd 
from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear'd wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.

Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop'd flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil'd women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour'd around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,

With the tolling tolling bells' perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.

Nor for you, for one alone,
Blossoms and branches green to coffins all I bring,
For fresh as the morning, thus would I chant a song for you O
sane and sacred death.

All over bouquets of roses,
O death, I cover you over with roses and early lilies,
But mostly and now the lilac that blooms the first,
Copious I break, I break the sprigs from the bushes,
With loaded arms I come, pouring for you,
For you and the coffins all of you O death.)

O western orb sailing the heaven,
Now I know what you must have meant as a month since I walk'd,
As I walk'd in silence the transparent shadowy night,
As I saw you had something to tell as you bent to me night after night,
As you droop'd from the sky low down as if to my side, 
(while the other stars all look'd on,)
As we wander'd together the solemn night, 
(for something I know not what kept me from sleep,)
As the night advanced, and I saw on the rim of the west how full you were of woe,
As I stood on the rising ground in the breeze in the cool transparent night,
As I watch'd where you pass'd and was lost in the netherward black of the night,
As my soul in its trouble dissatisfied sank, as where you sad orb,
Concluded, dropt in the night, and was gone.

Sing on there in the swamp,
O singer bashful and tender, I hear your notes, I hear your call,
I hear, I come presently, I understand you,
But a moment I linger, for the lustrous star has detain'd me,
The star my departing comrade holds and detains me.

O how shall I warble myself for the dead one there I loved?
And how shall I deck my song for the large sweet soul that has gone?
And what shall my perfume be for the grave of him I love?

Sea-winds blown from east and west,
Blown from the Eastern sea and blown from the Western sea, till 
there on the prairies meeting,
These and with these and the breath of my chant,
I'll perfume the grave of him I love.

O what shall I hang on the chamber walls?
And what shall the pictures be that I hang on the walls,
To adorn the burial-house of him I love?

Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,
With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,
With floods of the yellow gold of the gorgeous, indolent, 
sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,
With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific,
In the distance the flowing glaze, the breast of the river, with a wind-dapple here and there,
With ranging hills on the banks, with many a line against the sky, and shadows,
And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, and stacks of chimneys,
And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning.

Lo, body and soul—this land,
My own Manhattan with spires, and the sparkling and hurrying
tides, and the ships,
The varied and ample land, the South and the North in the light,
Ohio's shores and flashing Missouri,
And ever the far-spreading prairies cover'd with grass and corn.

Lo, the most excellent sun so calm and haughty,
The violet and purple morn with just-felt breezes,
The gentle soft-born measureless light,

The miracle spreading bathing all, the fulfill'd noon,
The coming eve delicious, the welcome night and the stars,
Over my cities shining all, enveloping man and land.

Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the bushes,
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

O liquid and free and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul—O wondrous singer!
You only I hear—yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart,)
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.

Now while I sat in the day and look'd forth,
In the close of the day with its light and the fields of spring, and
the farmers preparing their crops,
In the large unconscious scenery of my land with its lakes and forests,
In the heavenly aerial beauty, (after the perturb'd winds and the storms,)
Under the arching heavens of the afternoon swift passing, and the
voices of children and women,
The many-moving sea-tides, and I saw the ships how they sail'd,
And the summer approaching with richness, and the fields all busy with labor,
And the infinite separate houses, how they all went on, each with
its meals and minutia of daily usages,
And the streets how their throbbings throbb'd, and the cities pent
—lo, then and there,
Falling upon them all and among them all, enveloping me with the rest,
Appear'd the cloud, appear'd the long black trail,
And I knew death, its thought, and the sacred knowledge of death.

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,

And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the dimness,
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

From deep secluded recesses,
From the fragrant cedars and the ghostly pines so still,
Came the carol of the bird.

And the charm of the carol rapt me,
As I held as if by their hands my comrades in the night,
And the voice of my spirit tallied the song of the bird.

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.

From me to thee glad serenades,
Dances for thee I propose saluting thee, adornments and feastings for thee,
And the sights of the open landscape and the high-spread sky are fitting,
And life and the fields, and the huge and thoughtful night.

The night in silence under many a star,
The ocean shore and the husky whispering wave whose voice I
And the soul turning to thee O vast and well-veil'd death,
And the body gratefully nestling close to thee.

Over the tree-tops I float thee a song,
Over the rising and sinking waves, over the myriad fields and the prairies wide,
Over the dense-pack'd cities all and the teeming wharves and ways,
I float this carol with joy, with joy to thee O death.

To the tally of my soul,
Loud and strong kept up the gray-brown bird,
With pure deliberate notes spreading filling the night.

Loud in the pines and cedars dim,
Clear in the freshness moist and the swamp-perfume,
And I with my comrades there in the night.

While my sight that was bound in my eyes unclosed,
As to long panoramas of visions.

And I saw askant the armies,
I saw as in noiseless dreams hundreds of battle-flags,
Borne through the smoke of the battles and pierc'd with missiles I saw them,
And carried hither and yon through the smoke, and torn and bloody,
And at last but a few shreds left on the staffs, (and all in silence,)
And the staffs all splinter'd and broken.

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,
The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

Passing the visions, passing the night,
Passing, unloosing the hold of my comrades' hands,
Passing the song of the hermit bird and the tallying song of my soul,
Victorious song, death's outlet song, yet varying ever-altering song,
As low and wailing, yet clear the notes, rising and falling, flooding the night,
Sadly sinking and fainting, as warning and warning, and yet again bursting with joy,
Covering the earth and filling the spread of the heaven,
As that powerful psalm in the night I heard from recesses,
Passing, I leave thee lilac with heart-shaped leaves,
I leave thee there in the door-yard, blooming, returning with spring.

I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to keep, 
for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.

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