O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman composed the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination in 1865. The poem is classified as an elegy or mourning poem, and was written to honor Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and died in 1892, and the American Civil War was the central event of his life. Whitman was a staunch Unionist during the Civil War. He was initially indifferent to Lincoln, but as the war pressed on Whitman came to love the president, though the two men never met.
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.
The fallen captain in the poem refers to Abraham Lincoln, captain of the ship that is the United States of America. The first line establishes the poem’s mood, one of relief that the Civil War has ended, “our fearful trip is done.” The next line references the ship, America, and how it has “weathered every rack”, meaning America has braved the tough storm of the Civil War, and “the prize we sought”, the preservation of the Union, “is won”. The following line expresses a mood of jubilation of the Union winning the war as it says “the people all exulting;” however, the next line swiftly shifts the mood when it talks of the grimness of the ship, and the darker side of the war. Many lost their lives in the American Civil War, and although the prize that was sought was won, the hearts still ache amidst the exultation of the people. The repetition of heart in line five calls attention to the poet’s vast grief and heartache because the Captain has bled and lies still, cold, and dead (lines six through eight). This is no doubt referencing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Whitman’s sorrow for the death of his idol.
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.
In the second stanza the speaker again calls out to the captain to “rise up and hear the bells,” to join in the celebration of the end of the war. The next three lines tell the captain to “rise up” and join in on the revelries because it is for him. He is the reason for their merriment: “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”. Everyone is celebrating what Lincoln accomplished; the abolition of slavery and the unification of the people after a fearful war. Again the poet calls to the Captain as if he had never fallen. The poet does not wish to acknowledge the death of his beloved Captain, and he even asks if it is some dream (line 15) that the Captain has 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.
The third stanza begins in a somber mood as the poet has finally accepted that the Captain is dead and gone. Here there is vivid and darker imagery such as “his lips are pale and still” and the reader can picture the dead Captain lying there still and motionless with “no pulse nor will”. In line 17, the poet calls out “My Captain,” and in line 18, the poet refers to the Captain as “My father”. This is referring to Lincoln as the father of the United States. Lines 19 and 20 are concluding statements that summarize the entire poem. The United States is “anchor’d safe and sound”. It is safe now from war with “its voyage closed and done, from fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won”. In line 21, the examples of apostrophe, ordering “shores to exult,” and “bells to ring” are again referring to how the nation is celebrating while “I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead”.
Throughout the paper there is a distinct rhyme scheme, which is unusual for Whitman. The rhyme scheme in “O Captain! My Captain!” is AABCDEFE, GGHIJEKE, and LLMNOEPE for each stanza respectively. Two examples of alliteration are in line 10 “flag is flung”, as well as in line 19 “safe and sound”. Repetition occurs many times in this poem, for example “O Captain! My Captain”, and “fallen cold and dead”.
“O Captain! My Captain!” became one of Whitman’s most famous poems, one that he would read at the end of his famous lecture about the Lincoln assassination. Whitman became so identified with the poem that late in life he remarked, “Damn My Captain…I’m almost sorry I ever wrote the poem.”