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Elizabeth for October 8th: Lincoln’s Funeral Train

Each time I read Whitman’s verse on Lincoln it never fails to inspire me.

Lincoln's funeral train

Lincoln was the first president whose funeral was taken to the public on a grand scale–his coffin was set on a thirteen day journey by train.  The train and its attendees traveled from Washington to Springfield, Illinois, through seven states and several major cities.  Hundreds of thousands of people attended the viewing of the president in Philadelphia alone.

According to accounts “Long lines of the general public began forming by 5:00 A.M. At its greatest, the double line was three miles long and wound from the Delaware to the Schuylkill. Philadelphia officials estimated 300,000 people passed by Mr. Lincoln’s open coffin. The wait was up to five hours. So many people wanted to view Mr. Lincoln’s body that police had difficulty maintaining order in the lines; some people had their clothing ripped, others fainted, one broke her arm.”

Lincoln’s death was universally mourned, and Whitman’s elegy for the president is emotionally stirring, evoking both the poet as a lone mourner as well as the throngs that flocked to behold the president in death.  Whitman describes the journey of the coffin through the rural landscapes of America as it travels from east to west.  But the poem does not linger on the journey itself, but also grasps a greater effect by detailing Lincoln’s “burial house”–the symbols that represent the great man:

Pictures of growing spring and farms and homes,

With the Fourth-month eve at sundown, and the gray smoke lucid and bright,

With floods of the yellow gold and gorgeous, indolent, sinking sun, burning, expanding the air,

With the fresh sweet herbage under foot, and the pale green leaves of the trees prolific…

And the city at hand with dwellings so dense, ands tacks of chimneys,

And all the scenes of life and the workshops, and the workmen homeward returning (462.)

Lincoln in an open coffin

Whitman immortalizes Lincoln as the morning star, the star that sets in the west with his death.  The narrator is then held between the thrush’s poetic exuberance on death and the mournful pull of memory of Lincoln in life.  Death is celebrated as a companion, a universal force worthy of praise, an escape from the suffering of living.  Yet the narrator moves between these two forces throughout the entire poem, only to escape the cycle and move beyond the lilac and the star at its very conclusion.  The poem ends with praise for “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands” and the release of Lincoln into the embrace of death and his immortalization through the ode.

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