May 31, 2009, is the 190th birthday of the Patent Office Building’s most famous employee and regular patron, Walt Whitman. Whitman served as a volunteer in the P.O.B. during the building’s Civil War conversion to a hospital and after the war, Whitman worked in the building as a clerk for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
While Whitman was never formally introduced to our sixteenth president, he alluded to Abraham Lincoln many times in his writings. His journals note having seen the president and his military escort on the streets of Washington and Whitman discusses Lincoln’s character and appearance in detail. Of course, Lincoln is also the subject of Whitman’s most famous poem, "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.
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
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.
Learn more about Walt Whitman in the National Portrait Gallery's online exhibition "One Life: Walt Whitman, A Kosmos." And explore the history of the Patent Office Building, in the online exhibition "Temple of Invention."
Walt Whitman (31 May 1819 - 26 Mar 1892) / Samuel Hollyer (1826 - 1919), Copy after:
Gabriel Harrison, (1818 - 1902) /Stipple engraving on paper, 1854-1855 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
Patent Office Building / John Plumba Jr. / Daguerreotype, c. 1846 / Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.