Abraham Lincoln in Whitman's Poetry

The assassination of the American president Abraham Lincoln had a significant influence on Walt Whitman and his writings. Notably, it is the main subject of his most popular and highly regarded pieces among the American public. It is worth noting that the author did not only apotheosize the national leader but also transformed the thoughts about his death into the symbolic referents for themes of grief and suffering. Thus, the purpose of the present paper is to compare the verses “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!” in order to analyze the theme of Abraham Lincoln in Whitman’s poetry.

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In both poems Whitman uses a first-person narrator to deliver the speaker’s perspective. However, the first-person’s voice seems to be universalized as the poet extends the verse’s meaning to all the American people. Markedly, he advances such themes as life, death, grieving and suffering which relate to all the readers at the same level. Nevertheless, this type of narration allows the poet to promote a more personalized point of view and place an emphasis on the beauty of the individual. Indeed, the poems “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs…” bring the themes of admiration and political martyrdom into the surface.

In the poem “O Captain…” the fallen captain refers to an American national leader Abraham Lincoln while the ship is a historical allusion to the United States during the post-war period. The opening line establishes the verse’s mood, one of elation and celebration that the Civil War is ended: “the prize we sought is won”. Though the sailors succeeded in their mission, many lost their lives during this exhausting voyage, so they feel an overwhelming grief admitting the exultation of the survivors. Importantly, the repetition of the word “heart” highlights the protagonist’s profound despair over the recently deceased captain. Undoubtedly, it is a reference to the Lincoln’s assassination and author’s suffering due to the death of his idol (Terrinoni 29). Actually, the theme of admiration can be easily noticed as the poet focuses the readers’ attention on the fact that the leader became the president of the nation at the moment of crisis. Even the situation when everyone is rejoicing demonstrates that the American populace benefited from what the president accomplished, namely, the nation unification and slavery abolishment. In the second stanza the speaker is not willing to acknowledge the final departure of his commander, similar to Whitman’s reluctance to accept the dramatic ramification of the war (Terrinoni 30). In detail, the central image of the verse is the sacrifice of the captain which was made to ensure the ship’s safety. Hence, the poet is convinced that Lincoln’s life should be memorialized as the one of a martyr for democracy and equality.

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The poem “When Lilacs…” is a longer piece commemorating Abraham Lincoln and divided into sixteen sections. Nonetheless, the president is not named and the circumstances of his death are also omitted which allows the elegy to have a universal character. What is more, the poem promotes a certain view which implies that Lincoln was much beloved and admired among the American people. Significantly, the author depicts a long journey of the funeral train along with the crowds of mourners that came to see the heroic leader for the last time: “with the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbarred heads”. Gradually, the images of the declining western star, songbird and lilacs begin to form the focal point of the poem. To clarify, the lilacs represent the mourning song’s symbol thrown on the president’s coffin, as the protagonist inserts himself into the mass that lines the route of the train (Bloom 198). “When Lilacs…” can be compared to the poem “O Captain…” where the speaker views Abraham Lincoln as the heroic leader that remained strong until the victory and influenced the mindset of the entire nation.

As both poems were written shortly after Lincoln’s death, they express poet’s suffering and his attempts to incorporate the leader’s assassination into an understanding of the natural cycle of life and death. Notwithstanding that, Whitman in his poems tackles the theme of loss and suffering over the admired person from the different perspectives. In the verse “O Captain…” the narrator makes the efforts to balance his private pain with the general excitement resulting from the end of the war. Consequently, the contrast between the speaker’s personal feeling of grief and cheerful behavior on the shore brings into focus the America’s confusion at the end of the war (Terrinoni 30). The poem “When Lilacs…”, in its turn, explores the funeral procedure itself when the mourning Americans are united in their grief.  The given work is a more personal poem about anguish and despair if compared to “O Captain…”. For Whitman, Lincoln joins the ranks of the deceased soldiers whose spirits are peaceful and not troubled, unlike the American populace that sustains the damage of the system (Bloom198). Nonetheless, both poems suggest that Lincoln’s death should be viewed as a part of the recurrent cycle of nature and this change is in a certain sense a requirement of the historical development. Overall, Whitman treats Lincoln’s death as a natural phenomenon that should be respected and accepted.

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To conclude, it is appropriate to make a general comment on the verses “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” and “O Captain! My Captain!”. These literary works memorialize Lincoln’s life and his contribution to the society, placing a great emphasis on the beauty of his personality and Whitman’s personal feelings of loss. The verse “When Lilacs…” expresses the public grief and the sense of uncertainty about the future whereas the poem “O Captain…” reveals the conflicting sentiments that were evoked by the end of the war and the leader’s death. Ultimately, both poems promote a view that the existent change is permanent and should be understood as a universal cycle of nature.

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