Walt Whitman was an American poet, essayist, and journalist born on this day (May 31st) in 1819. He is regarded as one of the most important American poets of the nineteenth century and is often credited with the creation of free verse poetry.
Whitman published Leaves of Grass, a collection of poems, in nine different editions over the course of his life, each more distinct and developed than the last. Although much of Whitman’s work had an autobiographical element to it, he also wrote on themes of life, individualism, and democracy. In celebration of his influential work that has resonated throughout generations, we have three beautiful Walt Whitman poems to share with you.
1. O Captain! My Captain!
Even if you aren’t familiar with Whitman’s work, you have likely heard of his poem O Captain! My Captain!, which gained popularity after its use in the Dead Poets Society film.
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.
Whitman began writing this poem after the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, and he used an extended metaphor to compare this tragedy to the death of a ship captain at the end of a journey. Whitman deeply grieved the loss of Lincoln and went on to write other poems about his death.
2. O Me! O Life!
In 1867, Whitman published his poem O Me! O Life! about the struggles of human existence:
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Whitman illustrated the common struggle to understand the purpose of life, and declared that, perhaps, a person’s existence is reason enough to live and live well – a message that readers can still relate to today.
3. Song of the Open Road
Whitman first published his poem Song of the Open Road in 1855, and it’s a beautiful expression of freedom and joy that also remains relevant today:
From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,
Going where I list, my own master total and absolute,
Listening to others, considering well what they say,
Pausing, searching, receiving, contemplating,
Gently, but with undeniable will, divesting myself of the holds that would hold me.
I inhale great draughts of space,
The east and the west are mine, and the north and the south are mine.
I am larger, better than I thought,
I did not know I held so much goodness.
All seems beautiful to me,
I can repeat over to men and women You have done such good to me I would do the same to you,
I will recruit for myself and you as I go,
I will scatter myself among men and women as I go,
I will toss a new gladness and roughness among them,
Whoever denies me it shall not trouble me,
Whoever accepts me he or she shall be blessed and shall bless me.
Whitman described a journey to leave his everyday obstacles behind, and he encouraged the reader to do the same by discovering who they are, what their dreams are, and what true freedom means to them.
Proofreading & Editing Services
If you’re inspired to write a poem of your own, we have some exercises to help you get started! And once you’ve got a draft ready, our expert editors are ready to help. You can submit a free trial document today to learn more!