After Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865, Walt Whitman wrote “O Captain My Captain.” The poem is written in a form of an elegy and is aimed to honor the sixteenth president of the United States. The entire poem itself provides extended metaphor that implies comparisons between seemingly dissimilar things, for the U.S. after the Civil War and the killing of the President Lincoln.
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O 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!
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.
Analysis of Whitman’s “O Captain My Captain”
Walt Whitman was captivated by the Civil War. Most of his poetry reflects on that and is representative of American ideals and culture. He wrote “O Captain My Captain” as an a kind of mourning poem, also called elegy, in order to honor Abraham Lincoln. In the poem, the speaker is shouting out to his captain that they have finally made it back after a scary trip. They were on a ship that survived strong winds. The speaker in the narrative is a sailor on a ship that is just coming into a harbor and he can hear bells ringing and see crowds cheering on the road for their safe return. The sailor has just realized that the ship’s captain is lying on the ship’s deck bleeding and appears to be dead.
The main visual image of the poem is a celebration as a ship comes into its port. The image of the dead captain on the cold deck contrasts with the first scene in order to place emotional emphasis on his death. The auditory imagery is of bells ringing, bugles trilling, and crowds calling out. While they appear to be fun celebration festivities, they are described harshly, in order to signify the captain’s death.
Upon first read, the title makes it seem like the poem is about a sailor talking to a captain. But when it is analysed, it becomes obvious that the poem actually is a cry of sorrow mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln. The captain represents the President and the ship in turn represents the United States. The trip is the Civil War and the price is keeping the union together.
Whitman is overall very solemn about the loss of the captain. However, the beginnings of the first two stanzas have jovial tones, relating to the success of the war. The final line in each stanza about the captain’s death is stated matter-of-factly, that ironically makes the realization that much more emotional.