Romanticism in Oh Captain My Captain and When I Heard the Learned Astronomer by Whitman and To a Waterfall and Yellow Violets by William Cullen Bryant

Topics: Waterfall

When I think of the word romance, I always envision the stereotypical fancy candlelit dinner with the mood music quietly playing in the background as a couple, dressed to the nines, sit, engulfed in their own little bubble of bliss. Sometimes I think of the balcony scene of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliets the two young lovers profess their undying affections for each other.

In the realm of literature, the word “romantic” takes on a whole new meaning, alluding to a certain characterized style and the period in which it was popularized.

Some of the most famous poets from this period, William Cullen Bryant and Walt Whitman, perfectly capture the idealized mood and flair for the dramatic that partly characterized this period. Although these are features of writing praised in this era, we still see that these famous poets sport blatant differences, in small part because of their own individuality as artists, but also because of who has influenced them. One of my favorite poems by Walt Whitman is “Oh Captain my Captain,” and if I am being truthful, it is because it reminds me of Robin Williams and his role in Dead Poets Society, one of my favorite of his movies.

The poem itself is rather morose, and it is literally about the death of a ship’s captain and how everyone is mourning his passing. Many speculate and believe that it is mourning the loss of President Abraham Lincoln, although I personally do not know whether or not this is true.

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One really great thing I love about “Oh Captain my Captain,” is that it has a nice form.

Each stanza has a set of two couplets followed by three lines, and in each stanza those three lines remain similar, but are worded a little bit differently each time to progress the story being told. William Cullen Bryant has a poem entitled, “To a Waterfowl,” about a narrator’s experience with watching this waterfowl fly what seems to be aimlessly around the sky at sunset, when it dawns on him that it is not flying aimlessly, but it is, in fact, being guided by the power of God. At the end of the poem, it is important to note that it does not just end with this realization, but goes on to say that we are all being guided along by a similar power, and are not alone in our journey. Journey meaning both a literal journey and our path through life. “To a Waterfowl” has a simple ABAB rhyme scheme throughout, and sticks to this rigidly. Both of the aforementioned poems- -“Oh Captain my Captain” and “To a Waterfowl”_ share this dramatic flair characteristic of the Romantic Period. I mean to say they share these eloquent, heartfelt, detailed lines about feelings and passions and love and loss and beauty. Whenever I read poems like these I feel this need to reflect on life and why it is we create such pieces of art, and in Bryant’s poem, I think it is the same reason he has for thinking that there is nothing aimless about the bird’s flight: I believe it has to do with us wanting to not be alone.

I think we make art to connect with each other on a deeper level, and whether or not a God is at the center of that, we are all still here, trying to find solace in the company we keep, like in “Oh Captain my Captain” how the narrator seemed to value the fact that other people wanted to honor his captain as well. I think there is power in knowing that you are not alone in your experiences, and even though “self-reliance” is another debated characteristic of the romantic period, I still think it is fair to say that we make art to feel less alone. One particularly sweet poem written by Bryant is “The Yellow Violet” a poem that tells a story about a man walking through a path in early spring when he sees a little yellow violet peeking out of the ground, and he takes a minute to appreciate the beauty in it, and that if it had been later in the season, the little violet would have been overshadowed by the larger and more prominent flowers. Then he later goes on to talk about how we should all take a minute to pay more attention to the little things in life and treasure them. Although rich with interesting vocabulary and word choice, his poem utilizes an unoriginal, bland ABAB rhyme scheme, just like the previous poem. This becomes more important when we look at his work in comparison to Whitman’s.

The next of Whitman’s poems that I would like to draw attention to is *When I Heard the Learned Astronomer.” This poem, in comparison to the other three is very short, totaling in at eight lines of wordy free verse. It tells the short story of the narrator sitting in on an astronomy lecture, bored out of his mind of the subject matter. The math and charts being explained clearly sucked the wonder away from the simple pleasure he felt just my simply admiring the stars, which at the end of the poem is exactly what he ends up doing: leaving the lecture to go and stare at the endless abvss above him. When examining “Yellow Violets” we see this very structured, compacted poem with a neatly packed lesson at the end, which is ultimately the way we could look at and describe most, if not all, of Bryant’s poetry, which is almost something to be expected when we see that he is the start of this transition from the didactic, logic driven, matter-of-fact tone characterized by the Neoclassical period.

Bryant’s work is a mixture of the vivid, subjective descriptions found in romanticism and the preachy, almost condescending style of the neoclassic age. Like the form of a neoclassic poem with the content of a romantic poem. This is a stark contrast to the free verse of “Astronomer” in which the narrator turns his back on the acquiring of knowledge, even saying that it is making him sick, preferring to be outside, starring at the sky in silent awe. The poem paints this picture of a moody, brooding loner who prefers to be staring off into the heavens at night, transfixed by the beauty found in nature. This sounds to me like the archetype of theRomantic Hero. The “lesson” or implied meaning of the poem seems to be that you do not need to know the facts and figures to gain an understanding of nature; understanding or appreciation comes from experiencing it in all its wild glory. Interestingly, this “romantic hero” can also be found in both of Bryant’s poems as well; a loner taking this time away from society to appreciate the beauty of nature. The thing that I think is the driving factor in these blatant differences is the inspiration each author drew from.

Bryant is likened to the early European romantic poets, for the aforementioned mixture of neoclassic and romantic styles; Whitman seems to me to have been inspired by Emmerson and his early work. Even when Whitman sets up his poetry in a specific format like in “Oh Captain, My Captain” there is still this melodramatic mood given to the piece by his continued use of repetition. I think Bryant is still on this line between the two styles making his poetry seeming mushy by neoclassical standards, but still reserved by romantic standards. The similarities found in Walt Whitman and William Cullen Bryant’s poems can, in short, be summarized by the use of melodramatic language and the emerging “Romantic Hero” archetype; the differences in the form, style and meaning taken awayfrom the poetry being explained by the alternate source of inspiration each author drew from. I myself tend to adopt a “romantic” perspective on life, and at the end of the day, I appreciate a poem filled with rich, eloquent language that tells a story that almost feels like I am looking at a painting.

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Romanticism in Oh Captain My Captain and When I Heard the Learned Astronomer by Whitman and To a Waterfall and Yellow Violets by William Cullen Bryant. (2023, May 16). Retrieved from

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