Saturday, April 4, 2009

Walt Whitman "O Captain! My Captain!"

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote this dirge for the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Published to immediate acclaim in the New York City Saturday Press, "O Captain! My Captain!" was widely anthologized during his lifetime. In the 1880s, when Whitman gave public lectures and readings, he was asked to recite the poem so often that he said: "I'm almost sorry I ever wrote [it]," though it had "certain emotional immediate reasons for being."

While Whitman is renowned as the most innovative of American poets, this poem is a rare example of his use of rhymed, rhythmically regular verse, which serves to create a somber yet exalted effect. Whitman had envisioned Lincoln as an archangel captain, and reportedly dreamed the night before the assassination about a ship entering harbor under full sail.

Restlessly creative, Whitman was still revising "O Captain! My Captain!" decades after its creation. Pictured here is a proof sheet of the poem, with his corrections, which was readied for publication in 1888. The editors apparently had erred by picking up earlier versions of punctuation and whole lines that had appeared in the poem prior to Whitman's 1871 revision. On the back is written:

Dear Sirs
Thank you for the little books, No. 32 "Riverside Literature Series" --Somehow you have got a couple of bad perversions in "O Captain," & I send you a corrected sheet--
Walt Whitman

Kind Regards

Jim Clark

All rights are reserved on this video recording copyright Jim Clark 2009

"O Captain! My Captain!"............

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.

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