A Presidents’ Day Poem

A poem for Presidents’ Day:

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.

–Walt Whitman

15 comments for “A Presidents’ Day Poem

  1. Julie M. Smith
    February 18, 2008 at 7:38 pm

    Yeah? Well, my kids have been singing this all day:

    Yakko: Heigh ho, do you know
    The names of the U.S. residents
    Who then became the presidents
    And got a view from the White House loo
    Of Pennsylvania Avenue?

    Wakko: George Washington was the first, you see
    He once chopped down a cherry tree
    Dot : President number two would be
    John Adams and then number three

    Yakko: Tom Jefferson stayed up to write
    The Declaration late at night
    So he and his wife had a great big fight
    And she made him sleep on the couch all night

    Wakko: James Madison never had a son
    And he fought the War of 1812
    Dot : James Monroe’s colossal nose
    Was bigger than Pinocchio’s

    Yakko: John Quincy Adams was number six
    And it’s Andrew Jackson’s butt he kicks
    So Jackson learns to play politics
    Next time he’s the one that the country picks

    Dot : Martin Van Buren, number eight
    For a one-term shot as Chief of State
    Yakko: William Harrison, how do you praise?
    That guy was dead in thirty days

    Wakko: John Tyler, he liked country folk
    Dot : And after him came President Polk
    Yakko: Zachary Taylor liked to smoke
    His breath killed friends whenever he spoke

    Wakko: Eighteen fifty, really nifty
    Millard Fillmore’s in
    Yakko: Young and fierce was Franklin Pierce
    The man without a chin

    Dot : Follows next a period spannin’
    Four long years with James Buchanan
    Then the South starts shootin’ cannon
    And we’ve got a civil war
    YW+D : A war, a war down south in Dixie

    Yakko: Up to bat comes old Abe Lincoln
    Dot : There’s a guy who’s really thinkin’
    Wakko: Kept the United States from shrinkin’
    Saved the ship of state from sinkin’

    Dot : Andrew Johnson’s next
    He had some slight defects
    Wakko: Congress each
    Would impeach
    Dot : And so the country now elects

    Yakko: Ulysses Simpson Grant
    Who would scream and rave and rant
    Wakko: While drinking whiskey
    Although risky
    ‘Cause he’d spill it on his pants

    Yakko: It’s eighteen seventy-seven
    And the Democrats would gloat
    But they’re all amazed when Rutherford Hayes
    Wins by just one vote

    Dot : James Garfield, someone really hated
    ‘Cause he was assassinated
    Wakko: Chester Arthur gets instated
    Four years later, he was traded

    Dot : For Grover Cleveland, really fat
    Elected twice as a Democrat
    Then Benjamin Harrison; after that
    It’s William McKinley up to bat

    Yakko: Teddy Roosevelt charged up San Juan Hill
    Wakko: And President Taft, he got the bill
    Yakko: In 1913 Woodrow
    YW+D : Wil…
    …son takes us into World War One

    Yakko: Warren Harding next in line
    Dot : It’s Calvin Coolidge; he does fine
    Wakko: And then in nineteen twenty-nine
    The market crashes, and we find

    Yakko: It’s Herbert Hoover’s big debut
    He gets the blame and loses to
    Dot : Franklin Roosevelt, president who
    Helped us win in World War Two

    Wakko: Harry Truman, weird little human
    Serves two terms and when he’s done
    Yakko: It’s Eisenhower who’s got the power
    From fifty-three to sixty-one

    Dot : John Kennedy had Camelot
    Then Lyndon Johnson took his spot
    Yakko: Richard Nixon, he gets caught
    And Gerald Ford fell down a lot

    Wakko: Jimmy Carter liked campaign trips
    Yakko: And Ronald Reagan’s speeches’ scripts
    All came from famous movie clips
    And President Bush said “read my lips”

    Dot : Now in Washington D.C.
    Wakko: There’s Democrats and the G.O.P.
    Yakko: But the ones in charge are plain to see
    Dot : The Clintons, Bill and Hillary

    Yakko: The next President to lead the way
    Well, it just might be yourself one day
    Then the press’ll distort everything you say
    YW+D : So jump in your plane and fly away

  2. February 18, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    Julie–how could you give us those beautiful lyrics without telling us which melody to sing them to? You’ve totally wrecked my FHE.

    Nate–A good one for Presidents’ Day. I know so little of the history of that poem–just that it was dedicated to Lincoln. I do wonder if it became controversial in certain areas of the nation, or if the press was so divided after the Civil War that Southerners never heard of it until _Dead Poets’ Society_.

  3. Julie M. Smith
    February 18, 2008 at 8:39 pm

    Margaret, if you go to youtube and search for animaniacs presidents you will not only get the tune but also the video! (Sorry can’t get the link to work.)

  4. February 18, 2008 at 9:27 pm

    Julie: Sorry, I still prefer Whitman.

    Margaret: I don’t know what the contemporary reaction to the poem was like, or even if it was published around the time of Lincolns assination. I think that Whitman incorporated it into his perpetually revised Leaves of Grass. I love this poem, the extremely unfortunate connection with Robin Williams notwithstanding. The shift in tone in the first stanza in particular is masterful in my opinion, the rhythm of the language vividly conveying the jarring shift from the jubilation of a long awaited triumph to the shock and grief of Lincoln’s assination. I live in a part of the world where they have statues of Confederate soldiers on the courthouse lawns, but I still love Lincoln and Whitman.

  5. Ivan Wolfe
    February 18, 2008 at 9:29 pm

    My, my, Looks like the Animanics have censored their lyrics. I have several CDs of their tunes, and the Clinton verse says something very different………

  6. Adam Greenwood
    February 18, 2008 at 11:08 pm

    I love this poem, the extremely unfortunate connection with Robin Williams notwithstanding.


  7. smb
    February 18, 2008 at 11:18 pm

    This poem was part of a trilogy of mourning poems in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death, which for Whitman could not be separated from the overwhelming death associated with the Civil War. My favorite of the cycle is When Lilacs Last Bloom’d.
    Whitman was not as widely read then as now, but he did express the feelings of many of his compatriots.
    Drew Gilpin Faust’s new history of death culture and the Civil War (This Republic of Suffering) situates these poems quite well.

  8. Ray
    February 19, 2008 at 12:18 am

    #5 – Ivan beat me to it. The unedited version is much funnier.

  9. Peter LLC
    February 19, 2008 at 7:49 am

    What do you find extremely unfortunate about the poem’s connection to Robin Williams?

  10. Mark B.
    February 19, 2008 at 10:07 am

    That they cut the poem to one line, and made Robin Williams the captain.

  11. Adam Greenwood
    February 19, 2008 at 11:44 am

    What don’t I find extremely unfortunate about the poem’s connection to Robin Williams?

  12. Mark B.
    February 19, 2008 at 12:22 pm

    Of course, it wasn’t Robin Williams, but John Keating, a character played by Robin Williams.

  13. February 19, 2008 at 12:23 pm

    I think that Mark B and Adam have said what I would say. I also object to the notion that Robin Williams does this wierd emoting thing where he looks like a constipated psychoanalyst and it gets billed as great acting. I just rather not have such images chasing themselves around my brain when I am trying to enjoy Whitman.

  14. Peter LLC
    February 19, 2008 at 12:48 pm

    Well, ok. I must not have my finger on the poetry/method acting connoisseur’s pulse. The poem just makes me think of Wilson.

  15. February 19, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    Peter LLC: Now you have hit on an association that I may find even more distasteful than Robin Williams. Wilson?!?

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