Walt Whitman May 31,1819 – March 26 1892

In case you are a Robin Williams Fan you will know this Whitman poem he references in the Movie Dead Poets Society.

Dead Poets Society released 1989

O Captain! My Captain!

By Walt Whitman 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 a-crowding,
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.

Walt Whitman, Walter Whitman, (born May 31, 1819, West Hills, Long Island, New York, U.S.—died March 26, 1892, Camden, New Jersey), American poet, journalist, and essayist whose verse collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, is a landmark in the history of American literature. “O Captain!

Walt Whitman, in full Walter Whitman, (born May 31, 1819, West Hills, Long Island, New York, U.S.—died March 26, 1892, Camden, New Jersey), American poet, journalist, and essayist whose verse collection Leaves of Grass, first published in 1855, is a landmark in the history of American literature. “O Captain!

At 11, Whitman was taken out of school by his father to help out with household income. He started to work as an office boy for a Brooklyn-based attorney team and eventually found employment in the printing business.

His father’s increasing dependence on alcohol and conspiracy-driven politics contrasted sharply with his son’s preference for a more optimistic course more in line with his mother’s disposition. “I stand for the sunny point of view,” he’d eventually be quoted as saying.

Opinionated Journalist

When he was 17, Whitman turned to teaching, working as an educator for five years in various parts of Long Island. Whitman generally loathed the work, especially considering the rough circumstances he was forced to teach under, and by 1841, he set his sights on journalism. In 1838, he had started a weekly called the Long Islander that quickly folded (though the publication would eventually be reborn) and later returned to New York City, where he worked on fiction and continued his newspaper career. In 1846, he became editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a prominent newspaper, serving in that capacity for almost two years.

Whitman proved to be a volatile journalist, with a sharp pen and a set of opinions that didn’t always align with his bosses or his readers. He backed what some considered radical positions on women’s property rights, immigration and labor issues. He lambasted the infatuation he saw among his fellow New Yorkers with certain European ways and wasn’t afraid to go after the editors of other newspapers. Not surprisingly, his job tenure was often short and had a tarnished reputation with several different newspapers.

In 1848, Whitman left New York for New Orleans, where he became editor of the Crescent. It was a relatively short stay for Whitman—just three months—but it was where he saw for the first time the wickedness of slavery.

Whitman returned to Brooklyn in the autumn of 1848 and started a new “free soil” newspaper called the Brooklyn Freeman, which eventually became a daily despite initial challenges. Over the ensuing years, as the nation’s temperature over the slavery question continued to rise, Whitman’s own anger over the issue elevated as well. He often worried about the impact of slavery on the future of the country and its democracy. It was during this time that he turned to a simple 3.5 by 5.5 inch notebook, writing down his observations and shaping what would eventually be viewed as trailblazing poetic works.

Hardships of the Civil War

In 1862 Walt’s brother George was wounded in the Civil War. When Whitman traveled to Virginia to visit him, he saw large numbers of the wounded in hospitals. The Civil War was a major event in Whitman’s career, stirring both his imagination and his sensibility and making him a dresser of spiritual wounds as well as of physical ones as he worked as a volunteer in hospitals. Lincoln’s assassination (1865) also moved Whitman deeply, and several poems bear testimony of his intense grief.

In 1865 Whitman was fired from his post in the Department of the Interior in Washington because of the alleged indecency of Leaves of Grass. He was hired by the Attorney General’s office and remained there until 1873 when he suffered a mild paralytic stroke which left him a semi-invalid. In Whitman’s last years (1888-92), he was mostly confined to his room in the house which he had bought in Camden, New Jersey. Two friends, Horace Traubel and Thomas B. Harried, attended him. He died on March 26, 1892. Thus ended the lifelong pilgrimage of the Good Gray Poet (as his contemporary, critic W. D. O’Connor, called him), an immortal in American literature.

Whitman grew into almost a legendary figure, due largely to the charm and magnetism of his personality. Contemporary critics described him as a “modern Christ.” His face was called “serene, proud, cheerful, florid, grave; the features, massive and handsome, with firm blue eyes.” His head was described as “magestic, large, Homeric, and set upon his strong shoulders with the grandeur of ancient sculpture.” These descriptions tend to make Whitman appear almost a mythical personage. But he was very much alive.

Leaves of Grass, ever since its first publication in 1855, has been a puzzling collection of poems. It inspires, it enthralls, and it tantalizes-and yet, the problems it poses are numerous and varied. Whitman so completely identified himself with Leaves (“This is no book,/Who touches this touches a man”) that critics have tried to find reflections of Whitman’s own life in all the imagery and symbolism of the poems. Whitman did explore and express many aspects of his personality in Leaves. It was he himself who created the illusion that he and his poems were identical. Through these works, he found full expression as a poet — and as a man.

The first edition (1855) of Leaves of Grass consisted of ninety-five pages. The author’s name did not appear, but his picture was included. By the time the second edition was published in 1856, the volume consisted of 384 pages, with a favorable review by Emerson printed on the back cover. For this edition, Whitman not only added to the text, he also altered the poems which had previously been published. The third edition appeared in 1860 and contained 124 new poems. The fourth edition, published in 1867, was called the “workshop” edition because so much revision had gone into it. It contained eight new poems. The fifth edition (1871) included the new poem “Passage to India.” The sixth edition, in two volumes, appeared in 1876. The seventh edition was published in 1881 and is widely accepted as an authoritative edition today, although the eighth and ninth editions are equally important. The last, which is also called the “deathbed” edition because it was completed in the year of Whitman’s death (1892), represents Whitman’s final thoughts. The text used here will be that of the last, or “deathbed,” edition of 1892. Only the most significant poems of each section of Leaves of Grass will be discussed.

A Whitman Chronology

1819 Born May 31 at West Hills, Huntington Township, Long Island, New York.

1823 Family moved to Brooklyn, New York.

1825–30 Attended public school in Brooklyn.

1830–31 Office boy in lawyer’s office, then doctor’s; then printer’s apprentice.

1832–36 Various jobs: printer’s devil, handyman.

1836–41 Schoolteacher in Long Island.

1841–47 Reporter and editor for various newspapers. Editor (1846) of Brooklyn Daily Eagle. Published (1842) Franklin Evans, or the Inebriate, a tract.

1848 Discharged from the Eagle. Visited New Orleans (worked on New Orleans newspaper) and traveled on the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes.

1849 Editor of the Brooklyn Freeman, a journal.

1850–54 Part-time journalist. Carpenter and house builder in Brooklyn (with father).

1855 First edition of Leaves of Grass published in July. It contained twelve poems and a prose preface.

1856 Second edition of Leaves of Grass, containing twenty additional poems.

1860 Third edition of Leaves of Grass. Traveled to Boston to discuss the preparation of this edition with Emerson.

1862–63 Went to Virginia to attend brother George, who had been wounded in Civil War, Did volunteer work in government hospitals.

1863–73 Lived most of the time in Washington, D.C. Worked for the government.

1864 Drum-Taps published.

1867 Fourth edition of Leaves of Grass.

1871 Fifth edition of Leaves of Grass. Also published Democratic Vistas (a prose pamphlet).

1873 Suffered mild paralytic stroke. Moved to Camden, New Jersey. Mother died.

1876 Sixth edition of Leaves of Grass.

1879 Traveled to St. Louis to visit his brother Jeff.

1881 Visited Boston to prepare the seventh edition of Leaves of Grass, published that same year.

1882 Specimen Days published.

1884 Bought house in Camden, where he lived the rest of his life.

1888 November Boughs published.

1889 Pocket-size edition of Leaves of Grass published for his seventieth birthday.

1891–92 Final (“deathbed”) edition of Leaves of Grass.

1892 Died March 26. Buried in Harleigh Cemetery, Camden.

Walt Whitman Quotes Simplicity and Strength

“Simplicity is the glory of expression.”

“Not I nor anyone else can travel that road for you. You must travel it by yourself. It is not far. It is within reach. Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know. Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

 “Give me the splendid, silent sun with all his beams full-dazzling.”

 “The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity.”

“I discover myself on the verge of a usual mistake.”

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. So medicine, law, business, engineering… these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love… these are what we stay alive for.”


His poetry often focused on both loss and healing. Two of his well known poems, “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d“, were written on the death of Abraham Lincoln. After a stroke towards the end of his life, Whitman moved to Camden, New Jersey, where his health further declined. When he died at age 72, his funeral was a public even

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