To express oneself so freely, so eloquently, and in such detail denotes someone who is self aware. Whitman is extremely self aware and fully capable of exploring and identifying the “multitudes” within himself. I believe this heightened sense of awareness, which borders on prophetic at times, is what attracts Whitman to Lincoln. Whitman is able to identify a kindred spirit in Lincoln, a man with a similar mind and equal greatness to himself. Lincoln, however, holds authority that Whitman recognizes he himself will never wield, but he respects and almost vicariously lives through Lincoln’s great influence. Simply put, Whitman would have made the same decisions as Lincoln if he had been elected President.
What unites the men is the “great Idea,” which Whitman refers to several times in “By Blue Ontario’s Shore.” Though Whitman states that the great Idea is the “mission of poets,” he defines the great Idea in national and political terms. First he places the great Idea within the context of war (it’s no mystery what war), then the great Idea becomes part of sweeping statement about unity and equality, and lastly he couples the bard of the great Idea with the bard of “peaceful inventions” (483). Here, Whitman hints the connection between a poet and a President; both the poet and the President, though one undoubtedly more powerful than the other, can have equally as great Ideas. He takes this poetical/political comparison one step further by asserting, “these States are the amplest poem” (471), describing the potential for great unity within the Nation, which was, of course, Lincoln’s primary objective. Similarly, both men look at the “Big Picture,” look toward the future, as motivation. Whitman writes, “O days of the future I believe in you” (474), which mirrors in a more concise, poetic way Lincoln’s closing words in the Gettysburg Address: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government: of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln’s use of the future tense and words like “new birth” are no accident, both Whitman and Lincoln saw past the grim present and towards a brighter future, knowing well that the war was justified.
Though our Good Grey Poet most certainly felt connected with Lincoln, I doubt the two could have ever been friends; not because of their differing status in society, but because Walt Whitman placed Lincoln on a higher plane of existence than himself, almost deifying him. Countless times in both his poetry and prose, Whitman refers to Lincoln as a martyr, which perhaps he was, but Whitman elevates Lincoln’s martyrdom to hyperbolic, Christ-like proportions. In “This Dust Was Once The Man,” Whitman describes the South’s attempted succession from the Union as, “the foulest crime in history known in any land or age” (468), and that Lincoln saved, single-handedly, the Union from this most heinous injustice. Aside from the ridiculousness of the first assertion (I mean, come on, the Spanish Inquisition was much worse), Whitman has made Lincoln the savior of Union. Even in his assassination, something not of Lincoln’s control at all, Whitman paints Lincoln as the critical element in America’s identity. In his lecture Whitman drives this point home over and over again: “strange (is it not?) that battles, martyrs, agonies, blood, even assassination, should so condense– perhaps only really, lastingly condense– a Nationality” (1070). Lincoln, like Christ in Christianity, becomes the fountainhead of a new nation– the first great Martyr Chief, as Whitman calls him.
It’s difficult, if not impossible, to pinpoint the bond between Whitman and Lincoln. However, I think the love Whitman feels for him is far deeper than the “crush” we joke about in class (even though Whitman likes Lincoln’s tan face quite a bit). Whitman recognized that he himself was a great man and in Lincoln he saw another great man, and maybe that’s all there is to it.