On Presidents’ Day, we take a moment to reflect on our country’s history and the ones who have led us through the ups and downs of our relatively young nation. When we consider poetry that addresses the White House, the quintessential American poet, Walt Whitman, comes to mind.

Whitman, who served as a clerk at the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a volunteer nurse in Washington, D.C., during the Civil War, idolized Abraham Lincoln, who he thought embodied American values, and Whitman wrote numerous poems in his honor. Just a few weeks after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox and Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865, Whitman self-published Drum-Taps, a collection of poems directly addressing the Civil War. Six months later, he republished the book with a “sequel,” including more poems reflecting on the end of the war. Drum-Taps included such poems as “Weave in, My Hardy Life” and “Shut Not Your Doors to Me Proud Libraries.” Whitman ultimately ended up folding many of the poems in the collection into his famous Leaves of Grass. But Drum-Taps originally included one of his most famous poems, “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d,” which the poet wrote as an elegy for Lincoln. Lincoln appears again later, elegized in Whitman’s popular “O Captain! My Captain!” an at once rousing and loving metaphoric rendering of Lincoln’s death.

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