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Poetic Reactions to Historical Events

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

“O Captain! My Captain!” page with Whitman’s handwritten corrections, 1888
“O Captain! My Captain!” Page with Whitman’s handwritten corrections, 1888.

Like writers of fiction and non-fiction, poets use their work as a forum for social commentary. Often this commentary is directly related to historical events of their time. One example is Walt Whitman’s book of poetry Drum Taps, written to record his thoughts about the Civil War. One of Whitman’s most famous poems, “O Captain, My Captain,” is a lament on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Lesser known is his work reflecting on the death of Ulysses S. Grant.

Offer students one of Whitman’s poems. Ask them to read and reread the poem in order to answer the following:

  1. To what event is the poet referring?
  2. What specific words or phrases from the poem offer evidence of this connection?
  3. What is the tone of the poem as it relates to the historical event? Identify specific words or phrases to support your answer.

While Whitman is a prolific example of a poet interacting with history through his work, students may be interested in poems about events closer to their own lifetimes. This collection of poems reacting to September 11th is a good place to start.  These poems address an event it is likely they have heard about from family or friends or learned about in school. Many of the poems were written within a year of the events, and the page includes works by both established and emerging poets.

Extend this experience by asking students to discover current examples of poetry written in reaction to historic events to share in small groups or with the class. Students may also be interested in writing their own poems.

What poems might you use to connect poetry and history?


  1. Two collections from my own narrow part of the World

    Chris Searle (Ed.)Bricklight: Poems from the Labour Movement in East London (1980)

    Brian Maidment (Ed.) Poorhouse Fugitives (1987)

    Not forgetting the Smithsonian’s CD collections of Ballads

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