Last month I wrote a biography on Emily Dickinson, a poet from the 1800’s. She never gained much recognition in her lifetime but is now a very well-known author of poetry. But Dickinson isn’t the only now-famous poet of her time. Another nineteenth century poet, Walt Whitman, achieved more fame during his lifetime, even inspiring other poets such as Ezra Pound.
Walt Whitman was born in 1819, on Long Island, New York. He worked many jobs as his years progressed, such as printing, teaching, journalism, editor or founder of multiple newspapers, and tending to the wounded. When Whitman was 36, he published his first copy of Leaves of Grass, which was a collection of twelve poems, authored by himself. One year later he released another addition, with more added poems, a letter of praise from a famous poet of that time, and a letter from Whitman in response. Throughout his life he continued revising and adding to his book, even writing fake anonymous praise for his book to entice interest. By the time he passed away, he had published nine versions of Leaves of Grass, his final version holding about 300 poems. There are mixed thoughts on Walt Whitman’s popularity during his lifetime. Some say he gained just about the amount of interest as Emily Dickinson, while others say he was fairly successful. But everyone agrees on one thing—while Whitman impressed Ralph Waldo Emerson and the author of Dracula, he was not viewed with as much respect nor did his poems have as much popularity as today. He had many controversial views to instead of what was “acceptable” in that time. One of his copies of Leaves of Grass was even banned in Boston because of some of the views he expressed in his poetry, and the district attorney in Boston even threatened to indict his publisher if he didn’t remove some parts from his book. Whitman’s ideas about slavery were known to be constantly shifting and a lot of his poems were about politics and the government. One of his most famous poems, and probably my own personal favorite of his, is O Captain! My Captain! I’ve included it below; try reading through it once and see what you think Whitman was writing about.
O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman
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.
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;
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
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,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, 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 mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The poem, at first, seems like it is written by the son of a dead captain. However, Whitman was writing about the assassination of president Lincoln as he, along with all of America, dealt with the shock. His beliefs and political views almost always ended up somehow in his poetry, and this poem is no exception. The more people learned about him and his views, the more people scorned him. He was even thrown out of one of his jobs after his boss realized that he was the author of Leaves of Grass. So then why do we celebrate him and his life today? The bridge over the Delaware River is even named for him. But if he was such a terrible person, why do we care so much about him? Whitman was one of the very first poets to write poetry without a rhyme scheme. He used free verse and other styles for his poetry, and yes, even rhyming sometimes, but that was completely unheard of during his time. Part of the reason his poetry wasn’t as well liked during his lifetime was because people didn’t like the new change. It was strange and new and different and not many people were interested in it. While Walt Whitman may not have had the most savory characteristics and beliefs, he is known as one of the most influential American poets for a reason. His free-verse style of writing revolutionized poetry.
“Walt Whitman.” Poets.org. poets.org/poet/walt-whitman September 17, 2019.
“How Walt Whitman Changed the World of Poetry & What You Can Learn From It.” Nebo. www.neboagency.com/blog/lesson-walt-whitman-audacity/ September 17, 2019.
“Delaware River Port Authority records on the naming of the Walt Whitman Bridge.” Penn Libraries. dla.library.upenn.edu/dla/ead/ead.html?q=walt%20whitman&id=EAD_upenn_rbml_PUSpMsColl1043& September 17, 2019.
Picone, Kiri. “17 Things You Didn’t Know About Walt Whitman.” Ati. allthatsinteresting.com/walt-whitman#19September 18, 2019.
Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain!” Poetry Foundation. www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45474/o-captain-my-captain September 17, 2019.