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This report is taken from PN Review 224, Volume 41 Number 6, July - August 2015.

Two Worlds of Mourning: Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln’s Death David C. Ward
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 anthologised 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 continues in a smilar vein through the last stanza that 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 the poet 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 ...


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