O Captain! My Captain

Lincoln Memorial,

 

“If I am killed I can die but once, but to live in constant dread is to die over and over again.”
 
President Abraham Lincoln

O Captain! My Captain

by Walt Whitman

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;

O 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.


Of the countless tributes written to President Lincoln following his death, one of the most moving is Walt Whitman’s poem O Captain, My Captain.   Whitman had been devastated by the war, right from its very beginning.  Whitman’s poetry at its best, arose from his keen observation and appreciation of his fellow citizens and human beings, and he found the savagery of the war among countrymen unimaginable. 
 
We have enshrined Lincoln as a perfect leader, so great was his contribution and his sacrifice, but we should remember that he himself understood that he was an imperfect man.  It is possible that it is only through his understanding of imperfection that he found the grace to proceed both in leading the Union through but also in elevating the moral compass of our nation to end slavery.  It is now up to all of us, the beneficiaries of that sacrifice and gift to determine a path forward to end racism.
 
 
I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me…
 
Abraham Lincoln, 1862.
Lincoln delivered his second inaugural address on March 4, 1865, just 6 weeks prior to his assassination on April 15.  Here is his speech in its entirety, as there is no better way to summarize the history of the Civil War and to encompass the generosity of this man.  I believe this speech did as much to create the opportunity for a lasting peace as all the Union’s victories, as once Lincoln was dead, his words stood for his expectations of the path forward for both sides; to find a way forward in forgiveness and freedom.   At a time when we are becoming more and more divided, who will become the peacemakers of our generation?   Is it our responsibility as individuals more so than the government?  As divides and wars, even culture wars, are not created by politicians, they arise by men and women letting go of the ties that bind us all as citizens of the United States.
 

President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865

 

On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil-war. All dreaded it — all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war — seeking to dissole the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.

One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope — fervently do we pray — that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said f[our] three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether”

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan — to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.


 

Lincoln Is Dead

By George Moses Horton 
 
He is gone, the strong base of the nation,
    The dove to his covet has fled;
Ye heroes lament his privation,
    For Lincoln is dead.
 
He is gone down, the sun of the Union,
    Like Phoebus, that sets in the west;
The planet of peace and communion,
    Forever has gone to his rest.
 
He is gone down from a world of commotion,
    No equal succeeds in his stead;
His wonders extend with the ocean,
    Whose waves murmur, Lincoln is dead.
 
He is gone and can ne’er be forgotten,
    Whose great deeds eternal shall bloom;
When gold, pearls and diamonds are rotten,
    His deeds will break forth from the tomb.
 
He is gone out of glory to glory,
    A smile with the tear may be shed,
O, then let us tell the sweet story,
    Triumphantly, Lincoln is dead.

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A Sonnet Obsession

I am a life-long Minnesotan who resides in Minneapolis. I hope you enjoy my curated selection of sonnets, short poems and nerdy ruminations. I am pleased to offer Fourteenlines as an ad and cookie free poetry resource, to allow the poetry to be presented on its own without distractions. Fourteenlines is a testament to the power of the written word, for anyone wanting a little more poetry in their life.

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