Walt Whitman is esteemed as one of the great poets of the ages. Even one brief poem illustrates his power.
283. A Clear Midnight
THIS is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,
Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson done,
Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the themes thou lovest best.
Night, sleep, death, and the stars.
Now, contrast this against the only major poem Whitman published with a fearful commitment to rhyme and meter.
193. O Captain! My Captain!
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.
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.
This in response to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Now, consider another attempt on the same theme. The opening stanzas.
192. When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d
WHEN lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful, western, fallen star!
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!
In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig, with its flower, I break.
In these three poems we see the poetic comparison and contrast of my Rule, All Bad Persuasion Is Sincere, as adapted from Oscar Wilde’s Bloom amended, All Bad Poetry Is Sincere. Whitman’s great poetry as evidenced in Clear Midnight and Lilacs follows a subtle structure, an unplanned plan that makes poetry shimmer with art. Then cringe through the marching thump of Captain Oh Captain and observe every trick, move, and cry.
The art and skill of poetic persuasion hides any sincerity no matter how deeply felt. It’s what you do to the Other Guy, not what It does to you.