Shocked at the election of their next president, many Americans at the end of 2016 turned to social media, petitions, polls, and the streets in protest. A century and a half ago, shocked at the assassination of the sitting president who oversaw the reunification of a divided nation, Walt Whitman turned to poetry. In “O Captain! My Captain!”, Whitman famously eulogized Abraham Lincoln as the fallen leader of the great ship of America, which he called a “vessel grim and daring.”
But for Whitman, poetry wasn’t just a vehicle for expressing political lament; it was also a political force in itself. In his preface to the first edition of Leaves of Grass (1855), Whitman claimed of the United States, “Their Presidents shall not be their common referee so much as their poets shall,” echoing Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous dictum in 1840’s Defence of Poetry: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley was referring to the role that art and culture play in shaping the desires and will of people, which eventually come to be reflected in the law. But Whitman went even further in his preface. “The Americans of all nations at any time upon the earth have probably the fullest poetical nature,” he wrote. “The United States themselves are essentially the greatest poem.” Whitman’s claim stemmed from a belief that both poetry and democracy derive their power from their ability to create a unified whole out of disparate parts—a notion that is especially relevant at a time when America feels bitterly divided.
Read more at the Atlantic.