O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

O Captain! My Captain! Summary and Analysis

In Short

  • Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” is an extended metaphor mourning the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865 at the close of the American Civil War.
  • The speaker, a sailor, reports to his captain that the ship has completed its journey. They have returned from a successful voyage. The crowd is celebrating on the shore to welcome home the captain.
  • But suddenly the speaker exclaims that the captain has fallen on the deck, ‘cold and dead’.
  • The speaker pleads the captain to rise up as people erupt in joy and wait to have a look at their captain.
  • But the captain does not move. The speaker cannot enjoy with the people outside. He moves towards the fallen captain and mourns over the loss.

O Captain! My Captain! Explanation

Stanza – 1

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

The poem begins with the speaker addressing someone as his captain. He wants to inform him that the ‘fearful trip’ is complete. The ship has returned home from a dreadful voyage. It has survived (weathered) every storm (rack). And it’s been a success; they have won the prize they have been fighting for.

Here one must recognize the speaker of the poem. He is none but a sailor. The readers are informed about the grueling journey that the crew of this ship has gone through to bring home the prize they fought for. We are so far not sure what the prize actually is. Have they won a game or even maybe a battle with a great outcome?

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;

The ship is nearing the port. The church bells can be heard ringing. People are all celebrating (exulting) in joy. They are staring at the steady ship (keel) coming to the harbour. The ship now looks ‘grim and daring’.

The ship is ‘grim’ because it has come back from a long hard voyage and has worn out. It is ‘daring’ because it has not only survived many hardships but has also been successful in its mission. The two words ‘steady’ and ‘grim’ associated with the ship in the final line stand in sharp contrast to the exulting and celebratory mood of the people on the shore. It brings a sense of gloom and uncertainty. Is something bad going to happen?

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

It looks like the speaker is utterly shocked, almost dumbstruck! He sees drops of blood on the ship. His captain’s body lies on the board. The captain who was supposed to be welcomed grandly by the masses is now fallen on the deck, lifeless and cold.

Stanza – 2

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;

The sailor calls the dead captain to rise up and hear the sound of the bells. The people have gathered to welcome their captain. They are waving the flag and playing the bugle for him. They have brought bouquets and wreaths with ribbon to give him a grand welcome. The crowd is cheering for the captain. They are calling out to him. Their ‘eager faces’ say they can’t wait to see their beloved captain.

The profound admiration and reverence people hold for the captain is evident in the above extract.

Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

The speaker puts his arms under the captain’s head and tries to raise him as he calls him ‘dear father’. Though the captain is not probably his father literally, he has done something of great responsibility to have earned that respect.

However, the speaker wishes that it is some dream he is going through. He cannot accept the reality that his dear captain is now dead and fallen on the deck.

Stanza – 3

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 captain is not answering the speaker’s repeated calls. His lips are now pale and motionless. He doesn’t feel the speaker’s hand under his head as he has no pulse now and no will power. It is no wonder that a dead man won’t respond to calls and won’t have feelings. But these lines actually highlight the unbearable pain and grief the speaker is going through at the death of the captain. It also suggests a great loss to the people.

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;

As the ship has now been anchored safely at the harbour. Its journey is over. After a long tumultuous journey (fearful trip), the ship has now come back victorious (victor ship) with its mission fulfilled (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 speaker addresses the crowd on the shore and calls for celebration. He wants the bells ringing and the crowd cheering. After all, they are celebrating the homecoming of their ship and the success of the mission.

While the crowd keeps erupting in joy, the speaker cannot join them. He stays all alone on the ship. Grief-stricken, he walks slowly towards where his beloved captain lies on the deck, cold and dead.

To understand the poem well, you must know that it is an extended metaphor in which the victory of the Union over the Confederacy in the American Civil War is compared to a ship returning home after a victory. The captain here is Abraham Lincoln, the former President of America, who guided the nation to the great victory. People exulting on shore indicates to the Union’s joy and celebration after a long painful journey or war.

O Captain! My Captain! – Into Details

Publication

Walt Whitman is regarded as one of America’s most significant 19th century poets. He wrote the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” in 1865 after the death of Abraham Lincoln, the former American President. The poem is the poet’s tribute to Abraham Lincoln for his role in the American Civil War. It was first published the same year (1865) in a revision of his book “Leaves of Grass”. The poem gained huge popularity at the first publication as it offered a way to express the nation’s collective grief.

Background/Context

The poem “O Captain! My Captain!” has a historical significance. The American Civil War continued from 1861 to 1865 between the states supporting the federal Union (the North) and the states supporting the Confederacy (the South) over the abolition of slavery from America. While the Union wanted an abolition of the inhuman practice, the Confederate States wanted slavery to stay.

After getting elected as the President of America, Abraham Lincoln declared the abolition of slavery from America in 1863. But the war continued till 1865. The northern states supporting the Union emerged victorious. But President Lincoln was assassinated.

Whitman wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” in response to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, an event that left the whole nation devastated. Aside from his patriotism and love for his country, Whitman was an extreme admirer of Lincoln. He believed that President Lincoln had successfully held the country together through the times of war and hardships. The poet portrays his grief at the leader’s death in this poem.

Setting

Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is written in the backdrop of President Lincoln’s assassination. So, the poem is set in America in 1865 just after the death of the President.

Literally, the poem is set on a ship though. The ship has returned home after a long hard voyage and fulfilling its mission. The poet here uses the ship as an extended metaphor for the Union who won the Civil War but lost its leader (the captain) in the end. The grief of the entire nation after the unfortunate death of the leader is caught up in Whitman’s poem.

Title

The title of the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is in the form of an address – an apostrophe, in literary terminology. The poem opens with this same address to the captain. The captain has guided the ship all the way but has fallen dead in the end, unable to see people’s joy and celebration for him.

Former American President Abraham Lincoln is the captain addressed here by the poet. He has guided the nation through the tough times during the American Civil War. But he is assassinated in the end. Not only the poet, but the entire country is grief-stricken and the poem is a means to express that grief. It is a tribute to the captain, the leader of the people. Thus, the title “O Captain! My Captain!” is just and apt here.

Form and Language

The poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is an elegy (a mournful poem usually expressing sorrow for someone’s death) written in the form of an extended metaphor.

The poem consists of three stanzas of 8 lines each. But in each stanza, the first four lines are quite long while the last four lines are very short, setting them apart from the first four. So, we may view each stanza as having two different quatrains (group of four lines).

This kind of unusual form for the poem has a reason though. The poet has deliberate done this to relate it to the thematic shift to the later stages of the stanzas. The first quatrain in each stanza starts with the scene of celebration on the shore at the homecoming of the ship. But then it shifts to the speaker’s grief at the death of the captain in the next four lines in each stanza.

For its use of common language and relatively regular form and meter, the poem is often seen by critics as inferior in quality to Whitman’s later poems which were more experimental in their form and language.

Meter and Rhyme

In “O Captain! My Captain!” the first four lines in each stanza loosely follows an iambic meter (a duple or disyllabic meter where a stressed syllable comes after an unstressed one) and the rhyme scheme used is ABAB. But the next four lines doesn’t seem to follow a particular metrical pattern and the rhyme scheme here is CDED.

O Cap- | tainmy | Captain! | our fear | ful trip | is done,

The above line is in iambic hexameter (six feet) with an exception of a trochee (stressed-unstressed) in the third foot.

The difference in the meter and the rhyme scheme between the first four and the last four lines in each stanza is also deliberate like the length of the lines. As the first quatrain speaks of the people’s joy and celebration, it has a rather regular metrical pattern, suggesting a rhythm of life there. But the next quatrain mourns the loss at the captain’s death. That is why it’s lacking the rhythm.

O Captain! My Captain! – Themes

Death and Mourning

As you already know, Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is an elegy, mourning the death of President Abraham Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. Through this poem the poet pays a homage to his admired leader and it gives an expression to the nation’s collective grief after the President’s death. So, mourning a death is the main concern of the poem.

Victory and Loss

Victory and loss are two opposite ideas but they can go together. Often, when a battle is won, the winning side sees it as a great victory. But at the same time, there goes a sense of loss – loss of limitless lives and property in war.

Here in “O Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman, the poet develops a similar theme when he portrays the victory of the Union in the Civil War and the death of President Lincoln at the same time. On one side, we see people on the shore exulting in joy and celebrating the victory, and on the other, there is the speaker mourning the death of the captain who guided the metaphorical ship ashore.

O Captain! My Captain! – Symbols

The Ship

The poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is an extended metaphor where the ship is the United States itself. Abraham Lincoln guided the nation’s ship as a captain through many storms in the Civil War. But the captain died when the ship returned home safely after accomplishing its mission, i.e., when the war ended and the Union emerged victorious. Thus, the ship is used symbolically in the poem.

O Captain! My Captain! – Literary Devices

End-stopped Line

An end-stopped line is a line of verse that ends with a punctuation. All 24 lines in this poem are end-stopped lines.

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Caesura

A caesura in poetry is a pause (with a comma, semicolon etc.) in the middle of a line.

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

Assonance

Assonance is the repetition of vowel sounds in nearby words.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still, (‘i’ sound)

Consonance

Consonance is the repetition of consonant sounds in neighbouring words.

The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, (‘r’ and ‘l’ sounds)

Alliteration

Alliteration is a sub-category of consonance. It is the repetition of consonant sounds in the beginning (or, stressed syllables) of nearby words.

Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, (‘f’ sound)

It is some dream that on the deck, (‘d’ sound)

Extended Metaphor

The entire poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is built on an extended metaphor which compares the United States to a ship and its president Lincoln to its captain who guided the ship through difficult times. The people are erupting in joy for the Union’s victory in the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery. But their beloved leader who made this victory possible is no more; he is assassinated at the end of the war.

Apostrophe

An apostrophe in literature is an exclamatory address to a person who is dead or absent or to a thing which is personified.

The speaker’s address to the dead captain calling him “O Captain! my Captain!”, “Here Captain! dear father!” etc. are examples of apostrophe.

Epistrophe

Epistrophe is the repetition of a word or words at the end of successive phrases, clauses or sentences.

The repetition of the expression “fallen cold and dead” thrice in three stanzas in the poem is an instance of epistrophe here.

Irony

It’s a dramatic irony in the poem when the speaker and the readers know that captain is now dead and won’t rise up again to see people’s celebration, but the people have no idea of this. They are exulting in joy and cheering for the leader who is now no more.

Synecdoche

A synecdoche is a figure of speech in which we refer to a whole by its part, or to a part by its whole. More than one synecdoche is used in “O Captain! My Captain!”.

When the speaker says “the steady keel” in line 4 of the poem, he means ‘the steady ship’. A part (keel) represents the whole (ship) here.

In line 12, ‘eager faces’ is another great example of synecdoche where ‘faces’ means persons.

In line 17, when the speaker says “his lips are pale and still”, he focuses on the captain’s lips to represent his general state of death.

Again, in line 21, when the speaker says “Exult O shores”, he means the crowd standing on the shore. This is not exactly part for the whole, but a thing associated with another. So, this is rather an example of metonymy. In fact, synecdoche is a type of metonymy.

Epizeuxis

It is the repetition of a word or phrase in quick succession.

Line 5 of the poem is an example of epizeuxis.

But O heart! heart! heart!

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