Learning from the Source: Whitman on Lincoln – Putting Loss into Words

"When Lilacs Last In the Dooryard Bloom'd" Drum-Taps (second issue). New York: 1865
During the civil war Walt Whitman worked in Washington D.C. and spent much of his spare time visiting wounded soldiers in the hospital. He was a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln whom he saw around the city frequently. Like many, Whitman was deeply saddened at the loss of  President Lincoln, assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865. Whitman wrote several poems about Lincoln after his death. Take the plunge into inquiry using the resources we have gathered* to see what new insights into Lincoln, Whitman, and this tragic time in our nation’s history your students can discover. Please feel free to send in suggestions or add your own ideas in the comments section.

“Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” & “This Dust Was Once the Man”

“When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”

“O Captain! My Captain!”

Death of Abraham Lincoln: oration/lecture by Walt Whitman

Lincoln and the Poets

Background & Criticism published in Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia, Garland Publishing, 1998

Making Connections

  • Read aloud one or more poems and have students comment on the thoughts, feelings, and images that come to mind as they listen. What lines of one or more poems best express how Whitman felt about the death of Lincoln? What lines of one or more poems best express the collective national loss of the death of Lincoln at the time? Provide a reader’s guide to the Lincoln mourning poems. Which group or type of person would best connect with each poem? (Be sure to explain the reasoning for your choices.)
  • Compare and contrast the two versions of “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day”. Why do you think Whitman made the changes? How did the changes influence the poem’s impact for you? How do you think the changes would have impacted people of the time?
  • Compare and contrast the three versions of “O Captain! My Captain!”. Why do you think Whitman made the changes? What might have influenced the changes from version 1 to 2 as opposed to version 2 to 3? How did the changes influence the poem’s impact for you? How do you think the changes would have impacted people of the time? How does the difference in words per line affect the visual and aural effect of the poem?
  • Investigate the historic context of different dates “O Captain! My Captain!” was reprinted in historic newspapers. In what ways was the poem connected to current events?
  • Compare and contrast the content, tone, or poetic style of the poems, evaluating them for affect and influence now and then. (Be sure to provide support for your evaluations.)
  • After experiencing the poems firsthand, read the background and criticism. What new insights did you gain? What insights can you add? What questions do you have? What challenges can you raise?
  • Read Whitman’s “Death of Abraham Lincoln” oration/lecture and a page of his lecture notes. Then review some of the primary sources listed in the opening paragraph of the post (scroll up). What new insights into Whitman’s lecture do the primary sources give you?
  • After reading Whitman’s “Death of Abraham Lincoln” oration/lecture, listen to the music played by the Unites States Air Force Band Ceremonial Brass Quintet on the Library streaming video webcast (minute 11:10). What mood does the music give? Why do you think they chose these to play these pieces. Does the music add to the feeling of the lecture content? If so, how? If not, why?
  • How do Whitman’s poems of Lincoln compare to those written by other published around the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth by the Los Angeles Herald Sunday Magazine?
  • Modern connection extension 1: The film the Dead Poets Society features Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” What essence of this poem does the film use and for what purpose? Do you think the use was true to the original spirit of the poem? Does it matter? Do you think the reference to this poem was successful in the context of the film?
  • Modern connection extension 2: Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer translated “O Captain! My Captain!” to Hebrew and wrote music to accompany it in order to mark the anniversary of the 1995 assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. Do you think the use was true to the original spirit of the poem? How does this use represent content remixing? In what way does this type of remixing serve to preserve, distort, or extend the original content?

* sources were gathered from the Library of Congress, Bartleby.com, and the Walt Whitman Archive (many thanks to editors Ed Folsom & Kenneth M. Price for a fabulous resource!)

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