On this day in 1892, American poet Walt Whitman died in his home in Camden, New Jersey. Whitman was America’s first great poet, and today his poems live on, expressing one of the most distinctive and democratic of all American voices.
Whitman was a pioneer of free verse, which abandons traditional poetic forms and meter. Instead, free verse is inspired by the music, rhythm, and natural cadences of the human voice. As Edward Hirsch puts it in his book A Poet’s Glossary, “The free-verse poem fits no mold; it has no pre-existent pattern. The reader supplies the verbal speeds, intonations, emphasis.” (1)
Whitman published the first edition of his great work Leaves of Grass in 1855, and throughout his life he returned to the work editing poems in the collection and adding new ones. When he lay dying at the age of 72, he received the final, ninth edition of Leaves of Grass. Virtually every American poet of the 20th century, as well as many others around the world, was inspired by and influenced by Whitman’s poems.
In the 1989 film Dead Poets Society, the English teacher Mr. Keating (played by Robin Williams) is also influenced by Whitman. In an inspirational short speech to his students, Mr. Keating explains why they read and study poetry:
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. 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.” To quote from Whitman, “O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless — of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?” Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and you may contribute a verse.
Mr. Keating also asks his students to refer to him as “O Captain, My Captain,” an allusion to the poem Walt Whitman wrote after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The poem is an elegy, a funeral song or lament for death, and it is written as an extended metaphor where Lincoln is the ship captain who directed his ship of state safely through the stormy Civil War.
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. (2)
Today’s Challenge: Dead Poet and Living Verse
Who are the greatest poets from the past? Write an elegy or brief speech dedicated to the memory of a great poet from the past. As you might expect, many such poets are referenced and quoted in the film Dead Poet Society, including Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Robert Frost — who, coincidentally, was born on this day in 1874. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: There is only one way to be prepared for death: to be sated. In the soul, in the heart, in the spirit, in the flesh. To the brim. -Henry De Montherlant
1-Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary.