The death of Abraham Lincoln had a profound impact on Walt Whitman and his writing. It is the subject of one of his most highly regarded and critically examined pieces, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" (1865-1866) and one of his best-known poems, "O Captain! My Captain!" (1865-1866). Whitman also delivered (sporadically) annual public lectures commemorating Lincoln's death beginning in April 1879. Although the two never met, Whitman and Lincoln, both deeply committed to the Union, remain intertwined in Whitman's writing and in American mythology.
Whitman intensely admired Lincoln from the late 1850s onward, remarking at one point, "After my dear, dear mother, I guess Lincoln gets almost nearer me than anybody else" (Traubel 38). On the Friday of 14 April 1865, when John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C., Whitman was in New York and read about the assassination in the daily newspapers and extras.
His first poem responding to Lincoln's death came only a couple of days later when he added to Drum-Taps (1865), already in press, a short piece titled "Hush'd Be the Camps To-day" (1865). Although it ends solemnly with "the heavy hearts of soldiers," this public commemoration of Lincoln's funeral—spoken to the poet by and for Union soldiers—asks us to "celebrate" his death, as it remembers "the love we bore him." "Hush'd Be the Camps To-day" is not one of Whitman's best-known poems, but it is significant not merely because it was his first poetic word on Lincoln's death, but also because it exemplifies the primary features that generally characterize Whitman's poetic treatment of Lincoln's death: as in "Lilacs," the poem mourns for the dead but celebrates death; it identifies Lincoln's death with the coming of peace; and it remembers Lincoln not because he was a great leader or conqueror but because he was well-loved. The poem also associates Lincoln with the war's ordinary soldiers, an association that prefigures "Lilacs" and its treatment of Lincoln's death as a metonymy for all the war dead.
"Hush'd Be the Camps To-day" and the other Lincoln poems ("Lilacs," "O Captain!," and "This Dust Was Once the Man" ) never mention Lincoln by name. As some critics have noted, Whitman had no need in the postbellum era to refer directly to Lincoln because his readers would easily recognize these poems as elegies for President Lincoln. Later, after the immediacy of Lincoln's death had faded into historical memory, Whitman identified the subject of these poems by grouping the four of them together, first in a cluster titled "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" in an annex to Passage to India (1871) and later in the "Memories of President Lincoln" cluster in the 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass. Other critics believe that the lack of direct reference to Lincoln indicates the poet's attempt to address universal themes.
Whitman does, of course, use Lincoln's death to talk about subjects beyond the events at Ford's Theater, including the subject of death itself. In "Lilacs," Whitman reconciles himself and the nation to Lincoln's death and death in general by fashioning the historical fact of the assassination and burial into a spiritual embrace of death in which death becomes both a personal and a national regeneration and cleansing. The treatment of Lincoln's death in "Lilacs" is famous for its symbolism and its formal, musical qualities. Indeed the poem relentlessly transforms its historical content into symbols. Lincoln as a person disappears only to reappear as a "western fallen star" and as the evoked metonymic associations of the poem's other symbols and images—coffin, lilacs, cloud, and the hermit thrush's song.
Whitman's handling of Lincoln's death in the lectures diametrically reverses the musical, ethereal, often abstract, heavily symbolized style of "Lilacs." In his lecture on the "Death of Abraham Lincoln" (1879), Whitman depicts the scene of the murder with dramatic immediacy, as if he were an eyewitness. The narration is suspenseful, detailed, and focuses on specifics (sometimes minutiae). Although Whitman was not an eyewitness, his close companion, Peter Doyle, was at Ford's Theater, and Whitman made impressive use of Doyle's story in his imaginative retelling. In the lecture, the president's murder is not a bizarre denouement to an inevitable war but rather the culmination of and solution to all the historic, national conflicts of the Civil War era. Lincoln's death becomes a metaphor for the bloody war itself and the climax of a lofty tragic drama that redeems the Union. Whitman's lecture turns Lincoln's assassination into the ceremonial sacrifice that gives new life to the nation.
Whitman's Lincoln possessed an undeniably heroic stature. Whitman called him "the grandest figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century" (Prose Works 2:604). Still, the poet did not merely apotheosize the dead president; he also transformed Lincoln and his death into a symbolic referent for thoughts on the war, comradeship, democracy, union, and death. Perhaps best exemplified by the "Lilacs" elegy, Lincoln's death became the event around which Whitman twined so sadly and beautifully his understanding of death's affiliation with love.
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Traubel, Horace. With Walt Whitman in Camden. Vol. 1. Boston: Small, Maynard, 1906.
Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965.
____. Memoranda During the War & Death of Abraham Lincoln. Ed. Roy P. Basler. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1962.
____. Prose Works 1892. Ed. Floyd Stovall. 2 vols. New York: New York UP, 1963-1964.
____. Walt Whitman's "Drum-Taps" (1865) and "Sequel to Drum-Taps" (1865-6): A Facsimile Reproduction. Ed. F. DeWolfe Miller. Gainesville: Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1959.