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O Captain! My Captain!

"O Captain! My Captain!" page with Whitman’s handwritten corrections, 1888.

When President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, a war-weary nation was plunged into shock. The last great battles of the Civil War were still a recent memory, and the murder of the president seemed to be a bloody, pointless coda to four years of conflict and instability. There was a great outpouring of grief across the country, and poems and songs were written mourning the nation’s loss.

One American who grieved for the fallen president was the poet Walt Whitman. Whitman had lived in Washington for most of the war and was a great admirer of Lincoln, whom he felt embodied the American virtues of plain-spokenness, courage, and "horse-sense." He often saw the president riding around town on horseback, and the two men sometimes exchanged cordial bows.

Lincoln’s death inspired Whitman to write one of his most memorable works—a simple, three-stanza poem of sorrow that bore little resemblance to his other, more experimental writings. "O Captain! My Captain!" was published in New York’s Saturday Press in November of 1865, and was met with immediate acclaim. The poem’s evocation of triumph overshadowed by despair spoke to readers throughout the shattered nation, and it was widely reprinted and published in anthologies. "O Captain! My Captain!" became the most popular poem Whitman would ever write, and helped secure for him a position as one of the greatest American poets of the 19th century.

Whitman was very particular about the appearance of his poems and paid careful attention to every detail of spelling and punctuation. When Whitman noticed several errors in one edition of "O Captain! My Captain!" he tore the page out and mailed it to the publishers with his corrections marked in ink. As you read this version of the poem, look at Whitman’s notes and ask yourself how his changes contributed to the poem’s impact.

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For more background information on this period, visit these presentations.

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