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About this Item

Title: Ambition

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: January 29, 1842

Whitman Archive ID: per.00148

Source: Brother Jonathan 1 (29 January 1842): [113]. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue. For a description of the editorial rationale behind our treatment of the periodical poems, see our statement of editorial policy.

Contributors to digital file: Elizabeth Lorang, April Lambert, Susan Belasco, and Nicole Gray

image 1



One day, an obscure youth, a wanderer,
Known but to a few, lay musing with himself
About the changes of his future life.
In that youth's heart, there dwelt the coal Ambition,
Burning and glowing; and he asked himself,
"Shall I, in time to come, be great and famed?"
Now soon an answer wild and mystical
Seemed to sound forth from out the depths of air;
And to the gazer's eye appeared a shape
Like one as of a cloud—and thus it spoke:
"O, many a panting, noble heart
Cherishes in its deep recess
The hope to win renown o'er earth
From Glory's prized caress.
"And some will win that envied goal,
And have their deeds known far and wide;
And some—by far the most—will sink
Down in oblivion's tide.
"But thou, who visions bright dost cull
From the imagination's store,
With dreams, such as the youthful dream
Of grandeur, love, and power,
"Fanciest that thou shalt build a name
And come to have the nations know
What conscious might dwells in the brain
That throbs beneath that brow?
"And see thick countless ranks of men
Fix upon thee their reverent gaze—
And listen to the plaudits loud
To thee that thousands raise?
"Weak, childish soul! the very place
That pride has made for folly's rest;
What thoughts, with vanity all rife,
Fill up thy heaving breast!
"At night, go view the solemn stars
Those wheeling worlds through time the same—
How puny seem the widest power,
The proudest mortal name!
"Think too, that all, lowly and rich,
Dull idiot mind and teeming sense,
Alike must sleep the endless sleep,
A hundred seasons hence.
"So frail one, never more repine,
Though thou livest on obscure, unknown;
Though after death unsought may be
Thy markless resting stone."
And as these accents dropped in the youth's ears
He felt him sick at heart; for many a month
His fancy had amused and charmed itself
With lofty aspirations, visions fair
Of what he might be. And it pierced him sore
To have his airy castles thus dashed down.


1. An earlier version of this poem entitled "Fame's Vanity" appeared in the Long Island Democrat, 27 November 1839. [back]


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