O Captain! My Captain! – OR – How Walt Whitman Saved Me

When I was in 11th grade, I took a drama class as one of my electives.  As I was a rather reserved kid, this really threw me out of my comfort zone.  I mostly loved drama class, though I probably approached it with a bit more seriousness than it required – as I did with most things in those days.  Early in the year, we had a public speaking unit during which we recited short pieces revolving around different themes, such as prose, poetry, humor, etc.  I typically chose my pieces well in advance and practiced the hell out of them – to the point of over-rehearsing every pause, every inflection (hence the seriousness, spontaneous I was not).

There was, however, one exception . . .

On the eve of my poetry piece, I had selected no poem and didn’t have so much as a single book of poetry in my possession. This was before the “internet in every home” phenomenon, so with no other options, I stood in front of my father’s library of moldy books and began to pull volumes off the shelf.  One by one I would flip through them and one by one I would despairingly return them to their spot on the shelf. Eventually I realized that I was starting to pull the same books off the shelf over and over again.  I started to panic; and then I started to sneeze.  Most of these books hadn’t been touched since they were bought so I had stirred up quite a bit of dust in my search.  My dad had a sizable collection, but as I soon learned, these were mostly decorative antique volumes by obscure authors, none of them poets!

It was hopeless; but I kept yanking books off the shelf anyway.  What else was I going to do?  It was getting late and I started to plot how I could arrive at school early and beg to be let into the library.  I was just about to give up and go to bed when I found a tattered book of short stories for young boys.  As I flipped through the pages, I discovered that between every story there was a POEM!!  And where there was a poem, there was HOPE!!  A glimmer of beautiful, glorious hope!  Until I started to read the poems anyway.  Most of them were ridiculously simple verses with even simpler rhymes about things like balls and bikes and fishing lures.  Ugh.

Towards the end of the book, I reached a poem entitled O Captain! My Captain! My heart started to race.   As my red, allergen-infested eyes glanced over the words, I could feel hope welling up within me again.  After the first reading, I knew this was a poem I could respectably perform without being laughed out of the room.  After the second reading, I could feel the emotion, the expression, the sheer power behind the words.

At the time, I had no idea that the author of that poem was a well known poet.  I had never heard of Walt Whitman.  My drama instructor must have assumed that I knew because she made no mention of it.  I didn’t realize it until years later, when I studied Whitman in a college poetry class.  What I had thought was just an obscure verse in a yellowed and tattered book for boys was actually a famous poem by a great American bard!

And that is how Walt Whitman saved me.


The poem is actually a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, with the “Captain” representing Lincoln.  The “ship” refers to the United States and the “fearful trip” alludes to the Civil War.


O Captain! My Captain!


O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,

The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is


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


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


From feartul 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.


Excerpt: Leaves of Grass – A Glimpse –

A glimpse through an interstice caught,

Of a crowd of workmen and drivers in a bar-room around the

. . . . . stove late of a winter night, and I unre-

. . . . .mark’d seated in a corner,

Of a youth who loves me and whom I love, silently approach-

. . . . .ing and seating himself near, that he may

. . . . .hold me by the hand,

A long while amid the noises of coming and going, of drink-

. . . . .ing and oath and smutty jest,

There we two, content, happy in being together, speaking lit-

. . . . .tle, perhaps not a word.

Excerpt: Leaves of Grass

Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances


OF the terrible doubt of appearances,
Of the uncertainty after all—that we may be deluded,
That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations 
         after all,
That may-be identity beyond the grave is a beautiful 
         fable only,
May-be the things I perceive—the animals, plants, men,
         hills, shining and flowing waters,
The skies of day and night—colors, densities, forms— 
         May-be these are, (as doubtless they are,) only 
         apparitions, and the real something has yet to be 
(How often they dart out of themselves, as if to con-
         found me and mock me!
How often I think neither I know, nor any man knows,
         aught of them;)
May-be seeming to me what they are, (as doubtless 
         they indeed but seem,) as from my present point 
         of view—And might prove, (as of course they 
         would,) naught of what they appear, or naught 
         anyhow, from entirely changed points of view; 
—To me, these, and the like of these, are curiously 
         answer’d by my lovers, my dear friends; 
When he whom I love travels with me, or sits a long 
         while holding me by the hand,
When the subtle air, the impalpable, the sense that 
         words and reason hold not, surround us and 
         pervade us,
Then I am charged with untold and untellable wisdom 
         —I am silent—I require nothing further,
I cannot answer the question of appearances, or that 
         of identity beyond the grave; 
But I walk or sit indifferent—I am satisfied,
He ahold of my hand has completely satisfied me.


-Walt Whitman


Whitman logo

Excerpt: Leaves of Grass

I have perceiv’d that to be with those I like is enough,

To stop in company with the rest at evening is enough,

To be surrounded by beautiful, curious, breathing, laughing

 . . . . . . flesh is enough,

To pass among them or touch anyone, or rest my arm ever

. . . . . . so lightly round his or her neck for a mo-

. . . . . .ment, what is this then?

I do not ask any more delight, I swim in it as in a sea.


There is something in staying close to men and women and

. . . . . . looking on them, and in the contact and

. . . . . . odor of them, that pleases the soul well,

All things please the soul, but these please the soul well.”

-Walt Whitman –  from  “I Sing the Body Electric”

Meandering: Whitman, Art, and a Question

image of bookI recently completed the brief biography simply titled, Walt Whitman, written by David Reynolds.  Reynolds puts forth concise biography that retains  a broad scope.  He touches on the logistics of Whitman’s life, his family, and the economic, cultural, and societal climate in which Whitman lived.  Beyond the logistics, Reynolds delivers a succinct explanation of the various things that inspired Whitman in writing his poetry – from politics, theater, and art,  to science, sex, and religion.  All of this serves as a good foundation and provides a springboard for delving deeper into the life and times of one of America’s greatest poets.

Regarding theater, in his own words, Whitman said that he spent his youth “absorbing theaters at every pore.”  As he grew older he became very theatrical in his day-to-day interactions, often “spouting” portions of Shakespeare with all manner of dramatics while walking the streets or riding the ferry.  Whitman also admired noteworthy lecturers and orators.  He confessed to a friend that he once desired to be a great orator, saying;

. . . I was to be an orator–to go about the country spouting my pieces, proclaiming my faith. . . I thought I had something to say–I was afraid I would get no chance to say it through books: so I was to lecture and get myself delivered that way.”

Apparently Whitman’s voice projection did not lend itself to being a great orator, but of course, Whitman  found his “voice” with poetry, which interestingly does have an oratorical quality to it.  Whitman remained passionate about oratory and his admiration for it is reflected in this excerpt:

O the orator’s joys!

To inflate the chest, to roll the thunder of the voice out from the

ribs and throat,

To make people rage, weep, hate, desire, with yourself,

To lead America–to quell America with a great tongue”

Whitman’s poetry contains numerous references to the philosophic, the spiritual, and the scientific. Reading about the sciences and pseudo-sciences that appealed to Whitman was intriguing!  For Whitman, the mystical and the scientific sat well together, as is implied by the inclusion of both in his poetry.  He looked to philosophy and religion to fill in the gaps left by science.  He did not believe in the exclusivity of any religion but embraced and celebrated them all.

All of those topics made for fascinating reading but I was perhaps most captivated by the chapter on the visual arts, in which Reynolds points to specific paintings and sculptures  that may have influenced his poetry.

The following are a few examples along with parallel excerpts from Whitman’s poems:

The Trapper’s Bride

image of painting

1850 - Alfred Jacob Miller

I saw the marriage of the trapper in the open air in the far west, the bride was the red girl,
Her father and his friends sat near cross-legged and dumbly smoking, they had moccasins to their feet and large thick blankets hanging from their shoulders,
On a bank lounged the trapper, he was dressed mostly in skins, his luxuriant beard and curls protected his neck, he held his bride by the hand,
She had long eyelashes, her head was bare, her coarse straight locks descended up her voluptuous limbs and reached to her feet.


Shooting for the Beef

image of painting

1850 - George Caleb Bingham

The western turkey-shooting draws old and young, some lean on their
rifles, some sit on logs,
Out from the crowd steps the marksman, takes his position, levels his piece;



1862 - Frederic Edwin Church

Whitman expounded on the effects of light in poems like the one below, A Prairie Sunset.  So it is not unreasonable that he may have also felt an affinity with certain luminist painters such as Fredric Edwin Church.

Shot gold, maroon and violet, dazzling silver, emerald, fawn,
The earth’s whole amplitude and Nature’s multiform power consign’d for once to colors;
The light, the general air possess’d by them-colors till now unknown,
No limit, confine- not the Western sky alone- the high meridian- North, South, all,
Pure luminous color fighting the silent shadows to the last.


I enjoy learning what artists think and believe about their own work in addition to the intention of art in general.  The artists that Whitman admired were the ones who, like him, depicted and elevated the ordinary, the everyday, the commonplace.  Yet, he felt that there was something lacking in American art during his time.  While paintings such as these were picturesque and relevant to the common people, they were also complacent. He felt that art should include “heroic actions, especially revolutionary or subversive ones. (Reynolds, p.72)”  As Reynolds relates, Whitman “regarded art as a means of refining and elevating the masses.”  His dream was that society could be reformed by art.


I admire both Whitman’s idealism and ambition with this idea.   My own thoughts about what art should embody and project are somewhat pliant.  I do not have a background in art and my approach is very much learn as you go. I also appreciate George Eliot’s perspective, when she expressed, “If Art does not enlarge men’s sympathies, it does nothing morally.”

My inclination is to view the visual arts in the same way that I do literature.  It should be enjoyable on some level, yes, but I don’t look to literature for a diversion or to be entertained.  I want something with substance.  I want something that makes me feel awake and alive, alters my perspective, shakes my perceptions, and makes me ask questions, or do more research.  I want to read literature that is an expression of humanity, history, and ideas.

I want to read literature that has a pulse.

Of course, all of that is highly individualistic.  Though I admire Whitman for his stance, I’m not so sure that societies on a grand scale can be reformed or elevated through art.

What do you think?

The Brittanica Online Encyclopedia defines art as “the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others.”  Is it okay if art is merely aesthetically pleasing, or demonstrates a beyond-proficient use of a certain technique or skill — or should art communicate something more?

Any thoughts?


Listen to Whitman!

And I mean that literally!

Imagine my excitement when I was perusing the internet last night and came across at The Walt Whitman Archive a sound recording from 1890 of what is very likely Walt Whitman’s actual voice!

The recording is a bit muddled and raspy but how many times do you get to hear the voice of an author, poet, or anyone for that matter, who died before the turn of the 20th century?!?

It seems almost too good to be true.

In fact, many skeptics thought as much when the recording was first released in 1992 at the Whitman Centennial Conference held at the University of Iowa.  An article by Ed Folsom entitled The Whitman Recording (published in the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review) reveals that the recording was part of the Roscoe Haley Collection.  Roscoe Haley was a New York City elevator operator whose apartment was found to be chock full of recordings, books, and papers when he died in 1982.  When the find was unearthed, it generated some skepticism.  In an NPR report, Sam Brylawski of the Recorded Sound Reference Center at the Library of Congress asserted that the recording “has either been exceptionally well equalized or it’s a fake.”  He expounds further,

. . . recording  in  the  1890s  was  crude  at  best.  . . .  All recordings were  enormously  noisy.  What you  have  here on this  recording is  a voice  that  comes  through  really  loud  and  clear.  The  surface  noise  on  the cylinder is  pretty much in the  background.”

However, not everyone agreed with Brylawski.

You see, there is a letter from the Edison Institute dated from 1889 and signed by Thomas Edison himself in which he expresses a desire to get a recording of the great American poet’s voice.  Experts who have knowledge of Edison’s wax-cylinder method believe that the recording could be authentic.  One such expert, Dave Beauvais asserts,

{R}ecordings  of  pre-World War  I  vintage,  exhibit this  superlative  richness,  balance,  and freedom from distortion in the lower and middle portions of the audible spectrum. They sound  like  they’ve  been  perfectly  equalized- but that’s  just  the  way  they  were  cut, acoustically . . . .  The  near-perfect equalization was inherent in the Edison process.”

Beauvais also comments on the authenticity of the voice in the recording, revealing that the accent within it would have been very difficult to emulate.

It  exhibits a quaint and subtle regional inflection – a  soft mix of  Tidewater Atlantic and an Adirondack dilution of  the contemporary New York accent -which has  quite literally  disappeared in  our age.  No one  speaks this  way  any  more. The  notion  that  someone  might  have  set  out  to  imitate  such  a  subtle  and nuanced  archaic  inflection  strains  credibility  just  a  bit . “

You can listen to the recording for yourself by clicking the link below or visit The Walt Whitman Archive and click on “Pictures and Sound.”

It amounts to 36 seconds and 4 lines of the 6-line poem entitled, America. I’ve included the text of the poem below as it’s somewhat difficult to understand in the recording.

Hear Whitman Speak!


Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,

All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,

Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,

Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love,

A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,

Chair’d in the adamant of Time.




Whitman Update: Waking up with Walt

I am really quite enjoying my reading of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, even though it’s not inspiring as many blog posts as I had originally anticipated.  I chalk this up to inexperience, perhaps.  As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, poetry was one of my diversions the year after I graduated from college, but since then we haven’t interacted much (and that’s been about 10 years ago).

I calculated that in order to get through the nearly 600 pages and 400 poems of Leaves of Grass by the end of this year, that I’d need to read about 50 pages per month.  I’m a wee bit behind as I’m only now reaching the 100th page, but I’d say that if all goes as planned, I should be back on track by the end of March.

I’ve decided to put off completing Walt Whitman’s America by David Reynolds until later.  It is an immense volume and I found that often I’d be reading that instead of actually reading Whitman!  So for now, I’m going to finish up Reynold’s slim volume simply titled, Walt Whitman.  It provides enough insight into Whitman’s life and times to give me a context and framework for understanding his poetry.  The larger Reynold’s volume will be more beneficial after I finish Leaves of Grass to provide more in-depth insight.

Of late, I’ve been reading a few pages of Whitman each morning with my coffee.

Aaah, to wake up with Whitman. . .

I’ve decided that mornings are the absolute best time to read Whitman’s poetry.  His vigor and lust for life adds a little extra jolt to my morning caffeine.

If you can imagine my groggy self, trudging downstairs into my kitchen in my bathrobe, with eyes half-mass, lackadaisically pouring my coffee, then slumping over my copy of Leaves of Grass, only to behold Whitman excitedly declaring;

That I walk up my stoop, I pause to consider if it really be,

A morning-glory at my window satisfies me more than the

metaphysics of books.

To behold the day-break!

I imagine his voice thundering that last line.  I wipe the extra sleep out of my eyes.  Okay.  Okay!  I’m awake.

Some mornings I feel as though Whitman is nudging me, saying,

“Pay attention.            Pay attention!”

It’s a pretty good way to start the day.

A Glimpse at Walt Whitman

whitman imageAs you may know, I plan to read Walt Whitman’s multitude of poems contained in Leaves of Grass over the course of this year. On Monday, the university library at my alma mater opened up for the year, so I trekked over there to pick out some companion reading for my journey with Walt.  (The semester hasn’t started yet so I think I was perhaps the only person on the 3rd floor – which is where the American literature is shelved. When I walked in, rather than being greeted by the usual low hum of voices and the sight of tables crowded with clusters of students busy at work and study, the lobby was completely empty. )

Anyway, I picked out two books by David Reynolds, one is just a concise biography of Whitman’s life, the other is entitled Walt Whitman’s America: a Cultural Biography. If the latter proves to be well written and informative I may add it to my collection as I’m nearly certain that I’ll reach my renewal limit before I complete its robust 600 pages.

I started reading the slimmer volume last night, which provided some insight into Whitman’s life. He was born May 31, 1819 in West Hills, NY (about 50 miles outside of Manhattan) to Walter and Louisa Whitman. Walter worked as a carpenter and farmer and the family owned some 60 acres when Walt was born. Whitman’s family was a bit complicated and turbulent, among his parents and his siblings there was alcoholism, mental illness, abuse, and poverty. When Whitman was three years old his family moved from their farmhouse in West Hills to Brooklyn where they moved from one house to the next and struggled to make ends meet. Whitman attended school until age 11, but had to quit in order to go to work and help provide for the family.

image of whitman

Walt as a younger man

Secularly, Whitman held many jobs during his lifetime including office boy, editor, journalist, clerk, and teacher. Early on, his jobs in the printing industry landed him in Manhattan where he lived until his career was disrupted by a fire that destroyed many of the printing facilities in New York. Thereafter, he was forced to return to Long Island and become a school teacher. Regarding his teaching style, Whitman was said to have been influenced by the methods and philosophies of Bronson Alcott and Horace Mann. Rather than engaging his students in rote instruction, Whitman told stories, posed questions, and provoked conversations in his classroom. His peers criticized him for his methods, which were thought to be too lenient and unconventional.

While teaching, Whitman maintained his interest in journalism and even founded a newspaper called the Long Islander. However, he quickly tired of such a rigorous schedule and sold the business after only 10 months.

Having grown up on the cusp of the Civil War, an issue that was forefront in Whitman’s mind was slavery. He was staunchly against it and after attending an antislavery convention in Buffalo, NY he founded yet another newspaper called the Daily Freeman to advocate against slavery.

However, over time Whitman became disillusioned by opposition and indifference and it was then that he turned to poetry. Whitman’s poems were strongly influenced by the “self-reliance and nonconformity” of Ralph Waldo Emerson. He also hoped that he could help to “unify his fractured country through his loving poetic voice” (Reynolds, p.17)

whitman book image

The first edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1855 and was followed by 9 other editions released in Whitman’s lifetime. Leaves of Grass grew from 12 poems to the 400 poems that are included in what has been termed the Deathbed Edition – which is the edition that I’m reading this year – published in 1892. So far, I have read 20 of those poems. I’m working on scribbling down my thoughts about them now, so another post should be forthcoming.