Two Worlds of Mourning: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln’s Death

Black and white photo of Walt Whitman leaning on a desk, wearing a hat.
Walt Whitman / by G. Frank E. Pearsall / Albumen silver print, 1872 | National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Charles Feinberg

Walt Whitman wrote two memorial poems about the death of Abraham Lincoln. One, “O Captain, My Captain,” is a fine piece of Victorian sentimentality, much anthologized and much recited on patriotic occasions:

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.

And it continues in a similar vein through the last stanza, which begins, “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 poem became a huge hit for Whitman, and he would usually recite it at the conclusion of his public lecture “The Death of Lincoln.” So popular was the poem that Whitman grew weary of it, not just because of repetition but also probably because he felt limited by the style in which it was written.

“O Captain, My Captain” was rooted in the conventional vocabulary and form of mid-nineteenth-century Anglo-American poetry. It jogs along nicely with its short end-rhymes (done/won, red/dead), setting up a rhythm between the momentum of the ship coming into port and the captain lying (inexplicably) dead. It was conventional to refer to the Union as a ship— the “ship of state”—and Lincoln as a captain would also require no explanation.

What is absent is the cause of his death, but the readers would fill in that stylistic blank for themselves: with Lincoln assassinated, the public gasped at the tragic irony that he had perished at the very moment of his triumph.

It is a sign of Whitman’s creativity that he could produce a well-worked piece of Victorian sentimentality like “O Captain” while also writing such a radically new work on the same subject as his second mourning poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

While “O Captain” was firmly rooted in the present and gestured to the past, “Lilacs” vaulted American poetry toward the future, creating a decisive break—both linguistically and in its cast of mind—with the time in which he wrote. There is no “captain” or ship in “Lilacs,” only the poet himself and his encounter with nature and the seasons.

The first lines are magic—magic in both senses, as they are compelling but also in signaling how the world will be referenced in order for us to then leave it: “When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,/And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,/I mourned, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.”

The link between mourning and spring, conventionally the season of rebirth and renewal, is audacious. “Lilacs” proceeds to survey the natural world in a way that becomes hallucinatory. It is as close as an American poet (a preternaturally optimistic American poet at that!) has ever gotten to Dante’s journey into the Underworld: “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 in the middle as with companions” was the poet himself. He surveys what he sees through the agency of a bird who speaks to him:

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 . . .

It ends, after sixteen long stanzas, with “Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,/There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.”

What is interesting about the two poems is what they omit. As with the unexplained death of the captain, what is omitted is the war itself as a historical event. What you have in the two mourning poems is the artistic sublimation and refashioning of the war or the assassination into an aesthetic presentation of war’s consequences.

The two extremes represented by Whitman’s Lincoln poems illustrate how the war itself disappears from American verse: it is either swaddled in pieties that indicate a kind of emotional incomprehension, or it becomes the jumping-off point for an incipient modernism, one that leaves the war and the past behind. As Whitman himself put it, “The real war will not get in the books.” But it is a mark of Whitman’s genius, as well as his fascination with the protean figure of Abraham Lincoln, that he could write such divergent verses in response to his idol’s death.

—David C. Ward, Senior Historian, National Portrait Gallery