Voices of America: Lincoln, Whitman, and Copland

Tim Farrand

"The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we will save our country."

Abraham Lincoln, Annual Message to Congress, December 1, 1862

On May 30, 1922 the Lincoln Memorial opened in Washington, D.C. honoring the 16th president of the United States. His voice—through the actions he took and the words he spoke—shaped an ideal vision for America and continues to be the yardstick for measuring this nation.

Lincoln's voice stirred a flurry of forward movement in America and it continues to inspire generations of citizens today. Through the eyes of two artists—Walt Whitman, the poetic voice of America, and Aaron Copland, America's musical voice—we can uncover a portrait of a man who rose from the humblest of means to fight for all those whose own voices had been silenced by tyrannical forces.

Whitman's Elegy for Lincoln

He leaves for America's history and biography, so far, not only its most dramatic reminiscence—he leaves, in my opinion, the greatest, best, most characteristic, artistic, moral personality. [1]

The above words were written by Walt Whitman following the news of Abraham Lincoln's assassination in April of 1865. He continues: [2]

Not but that he had faults, and show'd them in the Presidency; but honesty, goodness, shrewdness, conscience, and (a new virtue, unknown to other lands, and hardly yet really known here, but the foundation and tie of all, as the future will grandly develop,) UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sense, form'd the hard-pan of his character. These he seal'd with his life.

Whitman defines, above all other qualities, "Unionism" to be Lincoln's central virtue to live on for future generations. Lincoln's ideal was Whitman's own who saw that the only path forward for the country—and the world at large—to be a coming together as one unit in cities of friends for the "love of comrades." The only desirable way to live would be with respect for each other, fellowship with each other, and love each other:

For You O Democracy
By Walt Whitman

Come, I will make the continent indissoluble,
I will make the most splendid race the sun ever shone upon,
I will make divine magnetic lands,
With the love of comrades,
With the life-long love of comrades.

I will plant companionship thick as trees along all the rivers of America, and along the shores of
the great lakes, and all over the prairies,
I will make inseparable cities with their arms about each other’s necks,
By the love of comrades,
By the manly love of comrades.

For you these from me, O Democracy, to serve you ma femme!
For you, for you I am trilling these songs.

We can have our differences but there is no need for hatred. He saw firsthand the ravages of the Civil War, "the foulest crime in history known in any land or age." [3] He looked to the future and saw how wonderful it would be to create cities of friendships instead of cities of division, to celebrate each other instead of attack one another, to allow our commonalities to bring us together with our differences of secondary or tertiary significance:

I Dream'd in a Dream
By Walt Whitman

I dream'd in a dream, I saw a city invincible to the
attacks of the whole of the rest of the earth;
I dream'd that was the new City of Friends;
Nothing was greater there than the quality of robust
love—it led the rest;
It was seen every hour in the actions of the men of
that city,
And in all their looks and words.

Elevating the Voice of Common Beings

Whitman wrote "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" as an elegy on the death of Lincoln. Harold Bloom, literary critic and a lifelong reader of Whitman, says that the poem "seems to me his greatest," continuing: "If Whitman—more even than Emerson, Dickinson, Hawthorne, Melville, James, Faulkner, Hart Crane—is the strongest American writer, then 'Lilacs' is the summit of our imaginative literature to date." [4]

For Whitman, Abraham Lincoln was more than a president: he was a friend whom Whitman dearly loved.

Their friendship was one of gestures instead of spoken words—a friendship Lincoln was likely unaware of—yet held a profound significance to Whitman which cries out in his "Lilacs" elegy.

Abraham Lincoln, February of 1865

During the Civil War, Whitman spent time volunteering at hospitals in Washington, D.C., and would "see the President almost every day, as I happen to live where he passes to or from his lodgings out of town" since "he never sleeps at the White House during the hot season." [5] The two never spoke, they never even met each other, but the intimacy of their relationship, for Whitman, was created through their daily exchange of glances as the president would ride his horse, surrounded by calvary, towards Layfatte square, Whitman waiting on the sidewalk: [6]

I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln's dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression. We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.

Whitman describes these daily encounters with the President as if they were private meetings. He writes that Lincoln rides "as the commonest man" through the streets making "no sensation, only some curious stranger stops and gazes." The stranger is Whitman and his daily task is to be there to notice, acknowledge, and cordially exchange bows with the quiet leader.

Both common men with humble backgrounds, Whitman feels a strong kinship with Lincoln. Their works seem to move towards the same purpose and their influence has proven that the smallest, most unlikely voices can shape history.

In Song of MyselfWhitman's American epic that calls for a new hero, that of the self, the individual, the common man—Whitman writes:

I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Song of Myself, Section 1

Whitman's song is for the elevation of all to the level of pure equality, friendship, and love:

Swiftly arose and spread around me the peace and knowledge that
pass all the argument of the earth,
And I know that the hand of God is the promise of my own,
And I know that the spirit of God is the brother of my own,
And that all the men ever born are also my brothers, and the
women my sisters and lovers,
And that a kelson of the creation is love,
And limitless are leaves stiff or drooping in the fields,
And brown ants in the little wells beneath them,
And mossy scabs of the worm fence, heap'd stones, elder, mullein
and poke-weed.

Song of Myself, Section 5

Whitman extends his love, as Harold Bloom points out, "to what most of us regard as the bottom of creation's scale" in those last three lines. [7] From the ants down to the poke-weed, nothing is too insignificant for him and the same can be said for Lincoln. He was a man who was of the common people and gave voice to those who were voiceless.

Whitman worked his whole life producing his collection of free verse poems under the title of Leaves of Grass. The name alone proves Whitman's aim for speaking for the most common of objects and thus labels his poems as mere expressions of the currents of everyday existence. The grass grows in all places and among all people ("among black folks as among white" [8]) therefore, his poems encompass every person, every region, and every being within his song of love.

"When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd"

Having established Whitman's ideological and physical connection with Lincoln, it is only fitting that his meditation on the death of the President be one of the most profound elegies in the English language. The work opens quietly, infused with deep sadness:

When lilacs last in the dooryard 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.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

In this poem, Whitman—raised in a devote Quaker family—creates a new "trinity" for a new country, one that values nature with its perennial renewal, that follows a new western path of discovery away from the traditions of Europe to the east into the new plains of the west, and that has as its figurehead the "Unionism" proclaimed by Lincoln who, in Christ-like manner, was shot on Good Friday but whose legacy lives on and "will grow brighter through time, while history lives, and love of country lasts." [9]

Having established the trinity, the poem moves through the woeful mourning of the "moody, tearful night" in which "cruel hands" robbed Walt of his dear friend and into the beautiful, delicate picture of Whitman stepping out into his front year to pluck a sprig of lilac to be placed on Lincoln's coffin as it begins its journey to Illinois:

In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash'd
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume
strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color'd blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich
A sprig with its flower I break.

Standing there, Walt hears a hermit thrush "warbling a song." The bird, "shy and hidden" within the "secluded recesses" of the swamp, now signifies Lincoln who, in the trinity, is first mourned as the embodied "him I love" but appears transformed in spirit within the song of the thrush who is, like the beloved President, solitary, withdrawn, shy, and melancholic:

In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.

Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.

Song of the bleeding throat,
Death's outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would'st surely die.)

The thrush, while small and secluded, sings out a song that can be heard throughout the land, ringing far and wide, further symbolizing Lincoln as the embodiment of the common man whose own small voice can rise to lead a nation:

Sing on, sing on you gray-brown bird,
Sing from the swamps, the recesses, pour your chant from the
Limitless out of the dusk, out of the cedars and pines.

Sing on dearest brother, warble your reedy song,
Loud human song, with voice of uttermost woe.

O liquid and free and tender!
O wild and loose to my soul—O wondrous singer!
You only I hear—yet the star holds me, (but will soon depart,)
Yet the lilac with mastering odor holds me.

Throughout the poem, Walt has moments of being held in his spot by individual components of the trinity. He is held within the "mastering odor" of the lilacs, "detain'd" by the "lustrous star," and finally—strongest of the three—by the bird's song. The Christian trinity represents three persons in one as does Walt's which sees Abraham Lincoln within the three objects: the ushering in of springtime with the lilac, the traveling westward of the bright star (Venus), and the solitary song of the thrush.

Hearing the thrush, Walt transforms the trinity into a personal one with himself in the middle surrounded by the "knowledge of death" on one side and the "thought of death" on the other. For Walt, the "sacred knowledge of death" is the coming into terms of friendship with the fate awaiting every individual:

Then with the knowledge of death as walking one side of me,
And the thought of death close-walking the other side of me,
And I in the middle as with companions, and as holding the
hands of companions,
I fled forth to the hiding receiving night that talks not,
Down to the shores of the water, the path by the swamp in the
To the solemn shadowy cedars and ghostly pines so still.

His coming into the knowledge of death goes beyond mere acknowledgment and into full praise. Walking as friends hand in hand, Whitman as part of the trinity of death comes to the thrush to hear its song:

And the singer so shy to the rest receiv'd me,
The gray-brown bird I know receiv'd us comrades three,
And he sang the carol of death, and a verse for him I love.

The bird's "carol of death" provokes his own which mingles death with the vision of a cold yet loving mother who wraps us with her "arms of cool-enfolding death" to be taken with her to be "lost in the loving floating ocean of thee:"

Come lovely and soothing death,
Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving,
In the day, in the night, to all, to each,
Sooner or later delicate death.

Prais'd be the fathomless universe,
For life and joy, and for objects and knowledge curious,
And for love, sweet love—but praise! praise! praise!
For the sure-enwinding arms of cool-enfolding death.

Dark mother always gliding near with soft feet,
Have none chanted for thee a chant of fullest welcome?
Then I chant it for thee, I glorify thee above all,
I bring thee a song that when thou must indeed come, come unfalteringly.

Approach strong deliveress,
When it is so, when thou hast taken them I joyously sing the dead,
Lost in the loving floating ocean of thee,
Laved in the flood of thy bliss O death.

Whitman was not a passive observer of the Civil War but an active member as a volunteer hospital aid seeing the horrors of the war by assisting in its aftermath. From the bodies covering the battlefields to the hospital beds where innocent soldiers faced unspeakable injuries, Whitman was in the midst of it all and could see, once one strips away the so-called heroics of battle, what a senseless waste of life wars are. Whitman's consultation is that the dead are no longer suffering for it is only the living who can suffer:

I saw battle-corpses, myriads of them,
And the white skeletons of young men, I saw them,
I saw the debris and debris of all the slain soldiers of the war,
But I saw they were not as was thought,
They themselves were fully at rest, they suffer'd not,
The living remain'd and suffer'd, the mother suffer'd,
And the wife and the child and the musing comrade suffer'd,
And the armies that remain'd suffer'd.

Whitman views the befriending of death as the ultimate struggle—the only battle—to be had. Once one has made friends with death, one can make friends with anyone for nothing is more of an enemy to life than death. Once that enemy has been accepted, there is nothing within life that can overpower one's ability to love. Only after reaching this realization can one begin to establish the "City of Friends" that Walt envisions and it is Lincoln that Whitman canonizes as a figurehead for the journey to attaining that goal. He hopes that we come into the knowledge that we are all of the same stuff, woven ("every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you") and that existence would be greater in the love of comrades rather than the battle of enemies.

And so, Walt ends his song to Lincoln by keeping in mind the lost "comrades" whose memory he will continue to hold on to and whose death he wishes not to be in vain:

I cease from my song for thee,
From my gaze on thee in the west, fronting the west, communing
with thee,
O comrade lustrous with silver face in the night.

Yet each to keep and all, retrievements out of the night,
The song, the wondrous chant of the gray-brown bird,
And the tallying chant, the echo arous'd in my soul,
With the lustrous and drooping star with the countenance full
of woe,
With the holders holding my hand nearing the call of the bird,
Comrades mine and I in the midst, and their memory ever to
keep, for the dead I loved so well,
For the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands—and this
for his dear sake,
Lilac and star and bird twined with the chant of my soul,
There in the fragrant pines and the cedars dusk and dim.

Experience the full text of the poem online at the Whitman Archive.

Copland's Lincoln Portrait

Lincoln was a quiet man. Abe Lincoln was a quiet and a melancholy man. But when he spoke of democracy, this is what he said.

He said: "As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy."

Copland, Lincoln Portrait

Lincoln's voice rings through Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait. Copland's own musical voice has long been exemplified as embodying a truly American sound. Perhaps it is the openness of the harmonies that remind one of the boundless possibilities that lay within the free United States which have brought Copland such distinction as a composer unmistakably American.

This inexplainable encapsulation in sound of the heart of American democracy speaks forth in the incredible opening of Copland's work. In the representation of the common man, the work begins quietly as if only a small light was shining. That light grows in brightness until everything clears away and the solitary clarinet is heard embodying Lincoln himself. This voice echoes throughout the orchestra until the music breaks forth in a spirited dance.

The narrator, entering halfway through the work, recites words taken from speeches given by Lincoln. The first entrance echoes Whitman's own proclamation of personal responsibility:

"Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We, even we here, hold the power and bear the responsibility."

Lincoln proclaims that we need to rise above "the dogmas of quiet past" in order to "think anew and act anew:"

The "eternal struggle" between "right and wrong" leads to that powerful climactic moment which, just as quickly as it comes, dissolves away to the intimate voices of individual instruments, showing that it is through the work of the people—not any one political leader—that the crucial difference is made in the nation's fight against tyranny.

The work ends in Gettysburg where Lincoln, on the battlefield, makes the ardent wish—as Whitman did—that the dead will be proven not to "have died in vain."

On this centenary of the Lincoln Memorial, reflect upon the words of Lincoln accompanied by the optimistic sounds of Copland:

May 25, 2022

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1. Walt Whitman, "Death of President Lincoln," Specimen Days, in Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, ed. Justin Kaplan (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1982), 763. Library of America—3.

2. Ibid.

3. Whitman, "This Dust Was Once the Man," from Memories of President Lincoln, in Walt Whitman: Poetry and Prose, 468.

4. Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language from Chaucer through Robert Frost (New York: Harper Perennial, 2004), 564.

5. Whitman, "Abraham Lincoln," Specimen Days, 732.

6. Ibid., 733.

7. Bloom, The American Canon: Literary Genius from Emerson to Pynchon, ed. David Mikics (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 2019).

8. Whitman, Song of Myself, Section 6, Poetry and Prose, 193.

9. Ibid., "Death of President Lincoln," 764.