Oh Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman

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!
                           The 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 wrote this poem as a tribute to the recently slain Abraham Lincoln. This was only one of the many expressions of mourning that emerged from Lincoln’s death, but it is the one that perhaps best captures the essence of leadership. Whitman’s ode to Lincoln emphasizes a sense of shared hardship, and collective triumph; a kinship so strong that Whitman can place himself in the perspective of Lincoln’s own son. In crafting this ode for the masses, Whitman separates himself from them to act as a true figure of suffering, close enough to the president to call him father.

This shifted perspective skews the true nature of leadership. Leadership requires a certain level of unknowability. Equality, after all, is its antithesis; even in our democratic society, no single person can be said to be the equal of the president—unless they themselves take up their own mantle of leadership. The almost violent separation leaders must create from their comrades lends itself well to violent tales—from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, literary heroes in particular struggle with the isolation of the role, and the distance it creates between them and their closest friends. In the end, however, meaningful connections can still be made; Harry has Ron and Hermione, Katniss has Peeta and Gale, and in return, these triumvirates forge bonds that can’t be made in any other circumstance. Leaders and their followers might never be objectively equal, but as Whitman shows, the subjective truth is just as important.