Sunday, November 01, 2009

Poet Walt Whitman On President Lincoln: 'And The Great Star Early Dropp'd'

Walt Whitman's two greatest post-Civil War poems were about Abraham Lincoln. The great poet-humanist and great president never formally met, although they passed frequently on the street in then small-town Washington.

As the war got underway, Whitman published "Beat! Beat! Drums!" as a patriotic
rallying cry for the Union after the 42-year-old poet's brother George joined the army and began sending him vivid accounts from the front.

Reading a casualty list in the New York Tribune in December 1862, he came upon the name
"First Lieutenant G. W. Whitmore." Fearing that it was a reference to his brother, he made his way south and eventually found George alive with only a superficial cheek wound. But Whitman was profoundly affected by seeing the many wounded soldiers and heaps of their amputated limbs and vowed to do whatever he could for the Union cause.

In Washington, a friend helped him get part-time work as a clerk in the Army paymaster's office, leaving him time to volunteer as a nurse at Army hospitals. He would write of this experience in "The Great Army of the Sick," published in a New York newspaper in 1863, and 12 years later in a book called Memoranda During the War.

In September 1864, George Whitman was captured by Confederates in Virginia, but was released the following February because of poor health. The poet, meanwhile, was promoted to a slightly higher clerkship and published Drum-Taps, but his past soon caught up to him and he was fired on moral grounds.

That was because of "Leaves of Grass", a poetry collection first published in 1855 that Whitman would add to in subsequent editions for most of the rest of his life. The collection is notable for its praise of the senses during a time when such candid displays were considered immoral, and scholars continue to debate today whether there are veiled references to homosexual relationships in it.

Whitman's admiration for Lincoln following his death bordered on being a fixation.

He frequently gave a lecture titled "The Death of Abraham Lincoln" in which he relived the assassination, believing that tragic event to be a defining
moment in American history because of Lincoln's efforts at social unification.

The first of his two famous post-Civil War poems was "O Captain! My Captain!". Written in 1865, it imagined Lincoln as the captain of the ship of state who was now fallen and bloody on the deck, and was memorized by many a school student of the era. "Oh Captain!" was a more conventional extended metaphor work with a regular meter rhyming scheme, and Whitman acknowledged he tired of reciting it over and over.

"Damn My Captain! Damn that poem!" he said on several occasions.

The second poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd", also was written in 1865 and is considered one of Whitman's greatest. The blooming of lilacs are an allusion to April, the month of Lincoln's assassination, and served as the poet's yearly reminder of the president's death.

These are the opening lines of the 206-line elegy:

When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd
And the great star early dropp'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.

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

IMAGES (From top to bottom): "Walt Whitman" (ca. 1887) by Thomas Eakins; Sketch of Whitman from frontispiece of 1855 edition of "leaves of Grass."; Whitman about 1860; Lincoln in 1865; Frontispiece of 1883 edition of "Leaves of Grass; Lilac bush.

1 comment:

James lambert said...

This was a beautiful explanation of Walt Whitman's nature. He was a beautiful man intellectually and physically. I assume his life choices influenced the writers and socio-artists that joined the ambulance corps in WWI from the US.