Thursday, October 08th, 2009 | Author:

In “Memories of President Lincoln”, Whitman eulogizes the fallen president and writes his most mainstream poem “O Captain! My Captain!”, an simple extended metaphor in the which the ship is the nation, and Lincoln is the fallen captain.

At last, Whitman rhymes! And not surprisingly, he shows effortless mastery of rhyme. This is the most conventional Whitman poem I’ve come across.  Here Whitman is truly the poet of democracy, because ordinary people can understand and appreciate this poem–and they did.  It was the only poem that was put in an anthology during Whitman’s lifetime, his hit single. For the average American, this is likely the only exposure they’ll ever have to Whitman. Who can forget the melodramatic closing scene of Dead Poets Society when the first boy stands on his desk and says “O Captain! My Capitan” ?

In “O Captain! My Capitan!” we hear a new poetic voice. Whitman has put himself and his experimental voice aside. I don’t feel the exalted universal “I” in this poem. The focus in this poem is on “my”. Whitman is humble, focusing on his role as the captain’s subject and as a son.

Each stanza is 8 lines, (4 long followed by 4 short) and begins with a reference to the captain and ends with “fallen cold and dead”.  The sixth and eighth lines always rhyme, bringing drama emphasis to “dead” the final word of each stanza.

In the first four lines of each staza, the rhyme scheme varies. In stanza 1, the first two lines rhyme (“done” and “won”), the stanza 2, there is no rhyme in the first four lines. In stanza 3, line 1 and 2 rhyme (still and will) along with 3 and 4 (done and won), a recapitulation of the rhymes found in the first two lines of the poem. This makes the poem catchier and easier to memorize than his free verse works.

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
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.

According to Reynolds, Whitman was embarrassed by the poem and its regular meter and melodrama. Horace Traubel recorded Whitman as saying, “I’m honest when I say damn My Captain and all the Captains in the book.” But Whitman recited the poem often during his popular Lincoln lecture series in the 1870s. It’s not uncommon for great artists to despise their most popular works.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. print

Whitman, Walt. O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. p.621. pint

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Wednesday, October 07th, 2009 | Author:

While walking to the Whitman house last week, I was struck by how different Camden must have looked during Whitman’s time. Today’s central Camden would be unrecognizable to someone living there  in the 19th century.

From Whitman’s time until the 1960s, Mickle Street was a narrow tree-lined street with row houses on both sides. Running parallel to the north were the tracks of the Pennsylvania railroad. A few blocks to the west, the tracks ended at the Delaware River, where a ferry ran to Market Street in Philadelphia. This had to have been a bustling, noisy place in late 19th century at least while the trains and ferries were running. Whitman’s bedroom was not more than 60 feet from the train tracks.


Mickle Street was widened to six lanes in the 1960s. To make room for the expansion, all of the houses on the north side of the street were demolished along with the railroad tracks. It was renamed renamed Martin Luther King Boulevard in the 1990s. A forgotten section by the river is still called Mickle Street.


Camden was a booming industrial city in Whitman’s time, but it has never been glamorous. The 20th century  brought dramatic decline to Camden. Today Mickle Street (many people still call it by its old name) is a street of empty lots covered in weeds and trash, with the occasional boarded up, half burnt-out brownstone awaiting demolition. There is little traffic on this six lane street.  Only three or four 19th century structures remain.


What would Whitman think of Camden today? He was a complicated man of contradictions so I can’t say. But if he were living in that house today, Whitman would have new neighbors: a prison (that he could see from his bedroom window), a center dedicated to himself (I can safely say he would have loved that), and a Campbell’s Soup factory that I mistook for a prison. He would be living in one of the poorest and most violent cities (per capita) in the United States. His middle class neighbors would have fled long ago to the suburbs. His fancy friends from Philadelphia might think twice before coming to Camden. Whitman’s Camden is long gone. It’s a miracle the house is even standing while its neighborhood has all but vanished. Hopefully the 21st century will be better for Camden.

image source:

Fahim, Kareem. “An inside look at violence in Camden” The New York Times 9 Feb 2008: web



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Thursday, October 01st, 2009 | Author:

In “Children of Adam” Whitman celebrates sexuality and the human body in an androgynous way. This is Whitman at his most revolutionary and daring. The writing is sexually explicit, even by today’s standards. Unlike Penthouse Letters, sex in this poem is generalized, it’s not episodic or designed to stimulate the reader. I admire his courage. He and his publisher took an incredible risk.

Today we are so quick to neatly categorize sexuality, whereas Whitman celebrates a kind of androgynous omnisexuality that knows no barriers.

Whitman seems obsessed with the physical aspects of sex and not with love and stable, monogamous relationships.  He doesn’t really mention love in connection to sex. It’s all very impersonal. He is also obsessed with the male orgasm (not with the female–some things never change).

You can hear the same sentiment Serge Gainsbourg’s controversial hit from 1969 “J’taime moi non plus” (I love you, me neither).  I can’t think of any other popular song that celebrates sexuality in the spirit of “Children of Adam.” This song features the singing (and moaning) of Jane Birkin. It was banned by the Vatican and several European governments for obvious reasons. No French necessary.


Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:

In excerpts from “Whitman the Political Poet”  Besty Erkkila brings up some interesting points about Whitman’s complicated political dealings.

In Chapter 1 she addresses one of the most popular myths about Whitman: that he transcended politics.  I’ve noticed a curious tendency for Whitman to be deified by his many of his readers and scholars–that he speaks to us from on high, that he is a poet messiah who has come to save the world.  Every poem, letter, article, speech, scribble contains infinite wisdom that must be studied. The beard helped.  What college freshman hasn’t had the same feeling about Jim Morrison? This phenomenon of worshiping some writers and ignoring others deserves further study.

Erkkila chips away at the myth stating “My own overriding assumption is that works of art have a particular history that is not merely biographical, but social and political in the broadest sense of the terms as well…. Indeed what makes Whitman unique as an artist, and perhaps also most interesting and valuable, is his embeddedness in his time rather than his transcendence of it.”

It’s impossible to have neutral political beliefs. Whitman had some political leanings that seem to be at odds with the universal, egalitarian tones of his writing. We learned from Reynolds that he supported Andrew Johnson, the country’s most openly racist president. He schmoozed with robber-baron capitalists. He allowed his works to be edited so he could earn more money.  He was full of political contradictions and paradoxes. When we learn more about these from Erlikka and Reynolds, it makes reading Whitman more enjoyable.  Bringing in history and politics into a reading doesn’t lessen his legacy, it just adds new layers of meaning to his work that New Criticism ignored.

Erkkila, Betsey. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995.

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Monday, September 28th, 2009 | Author:



Did you fear some scrofula out of the unflagging pregnancy? p.48 “Song of Myself”.

“Scrofula” (AKA King’s Evil) historically referred to a type of tuberculosis that affects the lymph glands of the neck. Today there is disagreement among medical professionals about its relationship to tuberculosis.  The word is adapted from the latin scrofa meaning “female swine”,  which was once thought to be the origin of the disease. In medieval times, scrofula was called the “King’s Evil.” It was believed that the touch of the King of France or England could the cure the disease. Scrofula was common in Whitman’s time but very rare today due to the near eradication of tuberculosis.

This is one of Whitman’s nastier lines and a welcome contrast to his universal warm and fuzzy side (he would have the loved “E”-popping rave culture of the early 1990s). It’s a rhetorical question in the vein of the Joker asking,  “have you ever danced with the devil by the pale moonlight?”  Its context in the poem is interesting and brings up more questions than answers. Did the mother fear getting scrofula or giving birth to scrofula? By scrofula, does he mean the disease or the sow from which it supposedly came?  Whitman’s having a little fun with this vagueness. I think this is an example of him being the poet of wickedness that he referred to earlier on the same page. But it fits into his universal vision—who we are and what we give birth to is all the same.


“scrofula” Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, 2009 <>.

Whitman, Walt. Song of Myself (1855).” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. 48.

Image : Absolute Astronomy collection, photographer, date unknown < >.

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Tuesday, September 22nd, 2009 | Author:

click here to play Walt Whitman mad libs!


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Tuesday, September 15th, 2009 | Author:


I’m a newcomer to the world of Whitman and I have to say that my first reaction to “Song of Myself” was annoyance and disbelief. I was really put off by Whitman’s style– his universal “I”, his gut-wrenching romanticism, his talking to inanimate objects (O this! O that!), his dirty-old man sensuality, his messianic complex, his lack of meter, his childlike awe of every detail of the universe, and his contradictions challenge the reader like no other poet. The 1855 reviews of Leaves of Grass show that I’m not alone.

I read part of the poem aloud to some friends. They laughed and thought I was making it up (part of this could have been the NPR voice I was imitating). They couldn’t believe that this was the work of America’s most celebrated poet–for whom bridges, schools, and beers have been named. Did Whitman really think he was a poet-messiah who was going to change the world? Did he take himself seriously? How can he be the poet of democracy if he is rarely read outside of the academic world?

A deeper understanding gained from close reading and historical analysis has changed my view of Whitman. Whitman has been growing on me.

“Song of Myself” is Whitman giving the finger to convention. He was boldly challenging the literary, sexual and religious norms of his time. To appreciate this, I had to challenge my own expectations of what literature should be. If you expect the poet to be modest, witty, down-to-earth, plausible, sensible, tasteful, and politically correct and to actually rhyme, Whitman will make your head explode.  By getting beyond these expectations and conventions, the reader is free to accept the poems on Whitman’s terms.  When you untangle the imagery, you might find yourself relating to what he says.

One key for me was being aware of the universal “I”. The first lines of the poem are like a disclaimer which I didn’t see the first time. Seeing “I” in this new light offers a new perspective on the poem’s egoism.

I celebrate myself

and what I assume, you shall assume

for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you

When Whitman writes “I” he means “we”. What a relief. He’s not so pompous after all.  Although I still roll my eyes sometimes when I read Whitman, I can’t resist the beauty and honesty of certain passages.  The more I read and understand, the more I put aside my hands-folded-across-my-chest attitude and feel refreshed by Whitman’s raw, naked, awestruck wonder of the world. Don’t read Whitman with folded arms. Suspend your disbelief the same you do when you watch cartoons, Broadway musicals, or political speeches. Accept the format and language Whitman has chosen for his vision and appreciation will follow.

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Friday, September 11th, 2009 | Author:

1855 photo of woman in gingam dress

1855 photo of woman in gingam dress

Who need be afraid of the merge?

Undrape . . . . you are not guilty to me, nor stale, nor discarded,

I see through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no,

And am around, tenacious, acquisitive, tireless . . . . and can never be shaken away (Leaves of Grass, 1855 edition, p. 33)

Gingham is a clothing fabric in a plaid weave. It is adapted from the Malay word “genggang” which referred to stripes. Gingham was first exported to England in the 17th century, and later to the American colonies. In the 19th century, gingham was produced in the southern American states. In Whitman’s time, gingham would have consisted of two color fibers woven together to produce a striping effect.



It was used for handkerchiefs, aprons, dresses, beachwear, curtains, military uniforms, umbrellas, and other accessories.

Gingham summer dresses “suitable for the afternoon” were popular in Whitman’s time. Gingham was the cloth of democracy. Photographs and daguerreotypes from the time show that gingham was a casual cloth worn by men, women, adults, children, blacks and whites.

The line containing the word “gingham” suggests a sensual x-ray vision. Whitman’s universal “I” has seen us naked and sees our divine perfection. We have nothing to be ashamed of. He invites us to get naked with him.

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Monday, September 07th, 2009 | Author:


Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the

origin of all poems,

You shall possess the good of the earth and sun . . . . there

are millions of suns left,

You shall no longer take things at second or third hand

. . . . nor look through the eyes of the dead . . . . nor

feed on the specters in books,

You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things

from me,

You shall listen to all sides and filter them from yourself.

In these lines Whitman invites us to experience life firsthand and to find our own truth through life experience, not through books and secondary accounts. This is something I’ve tried to do in the past few years of my life. When I graduated several years ago, I rejected the conventional career path others expected me to follow and traveled around the world being reckless and marginally employed. Many of the most interesting places were the ones people and guide books told me to avoid. Only by listening and being my own filter was I able to have these life-enriching experiences.

Whitman’s uncharacteristic modesty made me laugh:

you shall not look through my eyes either or take things from me

But isn’t that the whole point of this class?

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