American Treasures of the Library of Congress: Memory, Exhibit Object Focus

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O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain!
Walt Whitman (1819-1892)
"O Captain! My Captain!"
Proof sheet with corrections in ink, 1888
Manuscript Division

Walt Whitman (1819-1892) wrote this dirge for the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. Published to immediate acclaim in the New York City Saturday Press, "O Captain! My Captain!" was widely anthologized during his lifetime. In the 1880s, when Whitman gave public lectures and readings, he was asked to recite the poem so often that he said: "I'm almost sorry I ever wrote [it]," though it had "certain emotional immediate reasons for being."

While Whitman is renowned as the most innovative of American poets, this poem is a rare example of his use of rhymed, rhythmically regular verse, which serves to create a somber yet exalted effect. Whitman had envisioned Lincoln as an archangel captain, and reportedly dreamed the night before the assassination about a ship entering harbor under full sail.

Restlessly creative, Whitman was still revising "O Captain! My Captain!" decades after its creation. Pictured here is a proof sheet of the poem, with his corrections, which was readied for publication in 1888. The editors apparently had erred by picking up earlier versions of punctuation and whole lines that had appeared in the poem prior to Whitman's 1871 revision. On the back is written:

Dear Sirs
Thank you for the little books, No. 32 "Riverside Literature Series" --Somehow you have got a couple of bad perversions in "O Captain," & I send you a corrected sheet--
Walt Whitman

The Library holds the world's largest collection of Walt Whitman materials, featuring more than twenty thousand manuscript items alone.

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