O Captain! My Captain!

On February 9, 1888, Walt Whitman penned a note to the publishers of The Riverside Literature Series No. 32 calling attention to mistakes in their recently printed version of his poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” “Somehow you have got a couple of bad perversions in ‘O Captain,’” he wrote. “I send you a corrected sheet.”

Letter and Corrected Reprint of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain” with comments by author, 9 February 1888.” Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years. Manuscript Division

Whitman wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He revised the poem in 1866 and again in 1871. Apparently, the Riverside editors published an earlier version of the poem. Whitman’s February 9 letter to the publishers details his changes for punctuation and entire lines of text.

Published to immediate acclaim in the Saturday Press, “O Captain! My Captain!” was the only poem from Whitman’s compendium, Leaves of Grass, widely reprinted and anthologized during his lifetime. Whitman rarely used rhymed, rhythmically regular verse, but here it creates a somber, yet exalted, effect.

O CAPTAIN! my captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered 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.

Abraham Lincoln, head-and-shoulders portrait. Douglas Volk, artist, photograph of a painting, circa 1908-12. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

By the 1880s, Whitman was asked to recite the poem so often he said, “I’m almost sorry I ever wrote [it],” though it had “certain emotional immediate reasons for being.”

Walt Whitman. John White Alexander, artist, photograph of a painting, circa 1900-20. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

An outpouring of communal grief and numerous efforts to memorialize the fallen leader followed Lincoln’s death. In May 1865, African-American citizens of the District of Columbia organized the Educational Monument Association to the Memory of Abraham Lincoln for the purpose of erecting a national monument to Lincoln. African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907 contains the complete text of the group’s constitution as well as the eloquent tribute that Frederick Douglass made to Lincoln at the 1876 unveiling of the Lincoln Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D. C.

Learn More

  • The Library of Congress houses the largest archival collection of Walt Whitman materials in the world, and has created a number of online features related to the poet. Browse Walt Whitman: Online Resources at the Library of Congress to learn more about and access these materials. Among the collections you will find is the Thomas Biggs Harned Collection of Walt Whitman Papers, which consists of approximately 3,000 items spanning the period 1842-1937, with most of the items dated from 1855, when Whitman first published the poem Leaves of Grass, to his death at age seventy-three in 1892.
  • The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana includes more than 200 sheet-music compositions that represent Lincoln and the war as reflected in popular music. The collection spans the years from Lincoln’s presidential campaign in 1859 through the 1909 centennial of Lincoln’s birth. The compiler, Alfred Whital Stern (1881-1960), is considered the greatest private collector of materials relating to the life and times of Abraham Lincoln. Search the collection on death to find plaintive tunes such as “Rest, Noble Chieftain” in which the composer extols, “Rest noble Chieftain, sweet be thy sleep And over thy grave a Nation shall weep….”
  • For more on Abraham Lincoln, explore Abraham Lincoln: A Resource Guide, through which you can find access to online and digitized Lincoln materials held at the Library of Congress, including the Library’s Abraham Lincoln Papers.