Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
"Memories of President Lincoln" (1881–1882)
Author:
Hirschhorn, Bernard
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

"I love the President personally," Walt Whitman wrote in his diary (Complete 272), impressed with the statesman's high moral and spiritual character and unconquerable steadiness. He first sighted Abraham Lincoln in February 1861—when the president-elect arrived in New York on his way to his inauguration—and observed him often in Washington during the war years but he never personally met him. Lincoln, a westerner, came to be the "Redeemer President of These States" Whitman had been looking for (Complete 259). From the moment of his election to the nineteenth term of the presidency (1861–1865), the doubting poet was drawn to him. Their positions on slavery and disunion were alike. Beginning with Lincoln's resolution to overcome the Union's disastrous defeat in the first battle of Bull Run (21 July 1861), Whitman's esteem for him grew. Both had similar views and hopes for democracy in America and abroad.

Whitman grouped his four elegies on the death of Lincoln in Leaves of Grass (1881–1882) under the title "Memories of President Lincoln" (originally entitled "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn"). To emphasize a symbolic representation of the American people, Whitman did not use Lincoln's name in any of the poems. "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865–1866) expresses a most profound, noble, personal grief and despair at the loss of this "powerful western fallen star" (section 2). The nation unites in mourning (indicative of the centrality of Whitman's nationalism) as the funeral train travels across a portion of rural and urban America amidst the blue and gray soldiers who died. The poet places a sprig of lilacs on the president's coffin to express affection. But Whitman also grieves publicly and longs to deck the coffins of all the dead with lilacs. Further, the pictures "of farms" and "workshops" (section 11) he hangs in the burial house of a democratic president reflect democratic America. Though still gripped by sorrow, he prepares to turn toward the hermit bird's song, which sings of death as a "strong deliveress" from suffering (section 14). This enables him to reconcile himself to Lincoln's physical death and to all death. He is now able to envisage the "battle-corpses, myriads of them" (section 15) whom he "loved so well" (section 16) and who are forever enshrined in his—and civic—memory and as a significant theme of the dirge.

In "O Captain! My Captain!" (1865–1866), his most popular poem, written soon after "Lilacs," the wailing Whitman dealt with Lincoln's death differently. The president is described as the fallen captain of the ship of state he had steered to victory. Gazing at the "bleeding, pale" body of Lincoln, the poet memorializes him as the nation's martyr chief as he is universally mourned. Whitman repeatedly recited this patriotic ballad at the end of his memorial lectures—meant for the entire nation—given on the "Death of Abraham Lincoln" from 1879 to 1890.

Whitman immediately commemorated the occasion of Lincoln's funeral procession in Washington (which he witnessed) with his short poem "Hush'd be the Camps To-day" (4 May 1865). Spokesman for the silent, grieving, and meditative soldiers, Whitman celebrates "our commander's death" as a release from "life's stormy conflicts," ending on a note of finality as "they envault the coffin there."

His final four-line epitaph "This Dust was Once the Man" (1871–1872) honors Lincoln as the "gentle, plain, just and resolute" man who with "cautious hand" preserved the Union.

Whitman's judgment of Lincoln was correct and discerning. Now, a little over a century and a quarter since Lincoln's death, the publication of books on Lincoln still recalls his greatness as president. When, for instance, former Governor Mario M. Cuomo of New York was asked by a delegation of teachers from Poland's Solidarity Union to suggest published material on democracy, he chose Lincoln (see Lincoln on Democracy, edited by Mario M. Cuomo [1990]).

Bibliography

Coyle, William, ed. The Poet and the President: Whitman's Lincoln Poems. New York: Odyssey, 1962.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980.

Miller, James E., Jr. "'Lilacs': Grief and Reconciliation." A Critical Guide to "Leaves of Grass." By Miller. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1957. 111–119.

Whitman, Walt. "Abraham Lincoln." Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 1196–1199.

____. "Death of Abraham Lincoln." Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. Ed. Justin Kaplan. New York: Library of America, 1982. 1036–1047.

____. Memories of President Lincoln and Other Lyrics of the War. Portland, Maine: Thomas B. Mosher, 1906.

____. "Walt Whitman on Abraham Lincoln." Rpt. from Whitman's lecture on Abraham Lincoln's death. Semi-Weekly Tribune 18 Apr. 1879. (A copy is in the collection of the Easthampton Free Library, Easthampton, Long Island, N.Y.)


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