Exploring Whitman

Just another Looking for Whitman weblog

Jessica Pike for October 27th

Filed under: Uncategorized — October 25, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

Obviously Whitman loved Abraham Lincoln. Countless lines of Whitman’s poetry, prose, journals, and lectures describe a deep admiration and love for the “Martyr Chief”. However, as I read Whitman’s expression of his love for Lincoln in the “Memories of President Lincoln” poems, I have to wonder if the love for Lincoln could be compared to a celebrity ideal with whom he felt like he knew and could relate to, ( because Whitman too had celebrity status)? Or if the love that Whitman felt was more of a Christ-like worshiping? As we have discussed previously in class and in numerous blogs, Whitman did not give readers a clear depiction of his purpose in writing. So, when it comes to Whitman’s relationship with Lincoln as depicted in Whitman’s works, it is unclear what kind of “love” Whitman had for Lincoln.

Nevertheless, let us first look at Whitman’s love for Lincoln in a mutual “we are both famous, I respect, admire, and can relate to you” way.  In Whitman’s lecture on Lincoln delivered in Boston in 1881, Whitman describes his first encounter with Lincoln, and places Lincoln in a celebrity role. Whitman lists Lincoln among other historical figures, but then uses the word “celebres” to describe the Lincoln that he observes. Analyzing this scene that Whitman describes, it is almost as if Whitman is in awe over the powerful presence that Lincoln, as President-elect, had over the crowd of thirty to forty thousand. Although Whitman states that he saw Lincoln “often” during the four years following the crowd scene, for some reason Whitman admits that this first meeting stood at the forefront of his mind and best represented the “genius”. However, the mere fact that Whitman was giving a lecture on Lincoln, places Whitman in the category of someone that is a genius enough to capture the essence of Lincoln. Even in Whitman’s description of the crowd, Whitman acknowledges that it would take four geniuses Plutarch, Eschylus, Michel Angelo, and Rabelais to capture the physical resemblances of Whitman’s portrait. Yet, Whitman thought he was capable of describing the death and essence of Lincoln in his lectures, therefore placing himself on an all-knowing celebrity like status.

But, it is important to remember that the mutual celebrity status was not the only thing that Whitman and Lincoln had in common, Whitman could relate to Lincoln’s goal of improving America and the American people. As a leader of the Union, Lincoln wanted a united front and a united people. Similarly, Whitman wanted a better America where individuals would be able to live and take up any “open road” that they choose. So, perhaps, Whitman was trying to continue Lincoln’s legacy in the only way he new how, through the written and spoken word.

On the other hand, looking at Whitman’s relationship with Lincoln in a worshiping Christ-like figure way, there can be many parallels drawn. Although, the scholar Erkkila argues that Whitman avoids the Lincoln-Christ symbolism in writing When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d, I disagree with this statement and feel that there are obvious connections between the symbols throughout the poem and Christ. First, the “great star” immediately reminds me of the star of Bethlehem that leads the shepherds and kings to Jesus birthplace. This “powerful western fallen star” used in Whitman’s poem also leads the reader to Lincoln and his death. Furthermore, the description of the coffin passing through the lanes and streets invokes the image of Christ carrying the cross among the ancient streets knowing fully well that he will be crucified. Furthermore, in the poem This Dust Was Once the Man, Whitman describes Lincoln as “gentile and plain” which are common descriptors of Jesus. Also, the title of the poem corresponds with Genesis 3:19, “Since from it you were taken for dust you are and dust you will return.” This short poem demonstrates that Whitman was aware of religion and the self scarifying nature of both Christ and Lincoln.


  1. tallersam:

    While I had thought about Whitman as potentially being a member of the Lincoln paparazzi, if they were alive today, I hadn’t thought about him relating to the man in terms of their celebrity. I think Whitman (and his ego) was really caught between wanting to drool uncontrollably over Lincoln and remaining the American light he saw himself as. After all, how much should the great American poet play up his influences and muses? This especially contrasts with his earlier poetry, which lacks a distinctive locus like these Lincoln poems do. It’s one thing to tell people to not focus on you, but instead to focus on an abstract idea, but another to tell them to look at another living and breathing person instead of you.

    I think that Lincoln’s death begs the Christ comparison that you’re talking about. He had just “redeemed” the country from its slave-owning past, a task that had taken an obvious physical toll on him. As well, he wasn’t considered by his followers to have done anything wrong. Did Whitman worship Lincoln though? I’m not so sold on that, but he was darn close.

  2. bcbottle:

    I like your point about how Whitman, while claiming that it would take four great painters to depict Lincoln, describes Lincoln in his poetry without apology. It makes me wonder whether Whitman would have considered his writing as art in the same way he considers a portrait art. Perhaps Whitman saw himself as merely describing rather than portraying, and perhaps if we were able to ask him he would say that his poetry could not do justice to the man.

    This comment was a bit tangential, but I’m just going to go with it.

  3. bcbottle:

    After writing that comment I realized that I had mistyped. Whitman had wanted writers to be part of the depiction of Whitman. However, they were a different type of writer than Whitman, specifically a playwright and a biographer. I think Whitman would consider himself most like the biographer, but i still think Whitman would have considered himself differently than these other “geniuses”

  4. Mara Scanlon:

    This part of your post Brendon is commenting on above also struck me, Jess. It reminds me of W’s saying the real war will never get in the books, then writing/publishing a book to give us the real war. We hear him call in Memoranda for someone up to the task of capturing Lincoln’s face– but then he himself describes that face in lovely detail. W is often compared to the hermit-thrush in Lilacs, but if we follow your thinking, he’s more like the star, himself the prophet or annunciator that shines brightly in the sky to be admired and draws us to the new-born/newly-dead leader.

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