Two Poems by Walt Whitman

Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

Best known as a father of free verse, American poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) famously wrote impressively in both free verse and more traditional style about his feelings and experiences during the American Civil War. His occupations famously included volunteer service as a nurse during the war, which gave him much inspiration in his literary and journalistic career, which resumed thereafter. His observations and experiences both as a nurse and a Union sympathizer inspired some of his most widely known and admired poems. “O Captain, My Captain!” and “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” are two such pieces.

 

O Captain! My Captain!

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.

 

Beat! Beat! Drums!

Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Through the windows—through doors—burst like a ruthless force,
Into the solemn church, and scatter the congregation,
Into the school where the scholar is studying,
Leave not the bridegroom quiet—
          no happiness must he have now with his bride,
Nor the peaceful farmer any peace, ploughing his field or gathering his grain,
So fierce you whirr and pound you drums—so shrill you bugles blow.
 
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Over the traffic of cities—over the rumble of wheels in the streets;
Are beds prepared for sleepers at night in the houses?
          no sleepers must sleep in those beds,
No bargainers’ bargains by day—no brokers or speculators—
          would they continue?
Would the talkers be talking? would the singer attempt to sing?
Would the lawyer rise in the court to state his case before the judge?
Then rattle quicker, heavier drums—you bugles wilder blow.
 
Beat! beat! drums!—blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley—stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid—mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums—so loud you bugles blow.

One thought on “Two Poems by Walt Whitman

  1. I seem to remember reading somewhere that “O Captain!” was Whitman’s best-known poem during his lifetime, and he grew to resent that his popular reputation rested on it rather than his experiments with free-verse. I have to admit that these two poems are my favorite among his works, along with ‘I Hear America Singing.’

    Liked by 1 person

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