Walt Whitman’s status as poetic innovator and father to American verse is undisputed today, but while alive he enjoyed little public acclaim and only minor distribution—and much notoriety. Public and chattering classes aside, Whitman was critically acclaimed right from debut; Ralph Waldo Emerson, so-called “father of American literature” wrote to the poet personally upon receipt of Leaves of Grass, proclaiming “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” and later described Whitman’s poetry as “a remarkable mixture of the Bhagvat Ghita and the New York Herald.”
Lauded and republished around the world—especially so in England—Whitman never saw a broad appeal or readership at home—the main subject of and intended audience for the majority of his poetry—albeit in a single poem which, ironically, the poet himself thought very little of: O Captain! My Captain!
With layout set deliberately to resemble a ship approaching a destination, O Captain! My Captain! is a masterful but rare example of rhymed, rhythmically regular verse by a poet renowned for innovative form and structure. There is no doubt the use of rhyme was intentional; written as immediate response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, it served to create a fittingly sombre, exalted effect; a bitter-sweet elegy of commiseration and commemoration.
The poem was published to immediate acclaim in the New York City Saturday Press, and was widely anthologized during Whitman’s lifetime. He would be asked to recite the poem in public lectures and readings so often that he is quoted as saying “I’m almost sorry I ever wrote [it],” although it had “certain emotional immediate reasons for being.”
Envisioning Lincoln as archangel captain, the poet is said to have dreamed the night before the assassination of a ship entering harbour under full sail, an image dominant throughout, and the poem was deliberately typeset to appear on page like a ship approaching its destination.
It could be argued that in Lincoln Whitman saw the living embodiment of his poetic ideals: uniter of the nation, kindred opponent of slavery, harbinger of a future golden—a future of universal freedom and brotherhood which the poet envisioned as American destiny; tangible reality as well:
Poet Sri Chinmoy succinctly describes Walt Whitman’s poetic and national vision as interchangeable: “When the wind and storm of today bring in the golden Tomorrow, Whitman will shine forth, haloed in a new glory on the new horizon. His poems and his nation's consciousness are inseparable.”
Lincoln’s death was a violent blow to Whitman’s American vision and confident proclamation. Already traumatised by the division of the just ended Civil War, O Captain! was written at a time of great despondency and personal soul-searching.
The poem saw its first official publication as an addition to Whitman's Drum-Taps Civil War poems, one of a grouping of poems under the title When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d and Other Pieces —name also to a more critically significant poem dedicated to Lincoln, preferred by the poet to more conventional, populist O Captain!
Ever the perfectionist, Whitman revised O Captain! in 1866 and then again in 1871, a trademark practise of continual revision and never-ending improvement. His life work, Leaves of Grass, was revised continually from first publication in 1855 until 1892—the year of his death; the name for the final, definitive version, which included O Captain!, is thus ‘the Deathbed edition.’