Argued to be the “greatest of all American poets” (Gale 71), Walt Whitman is regarded by both local and foreign critics as one of the most influential literary minds in the history of the United States. His poem “O Captain My Captain” which he revised thrice in his lifetime (Gale 72) was one of the most published works during his time. The poem was written shortly after the end of the American civil war which was won by President Abraham Lincoln against the secessionists known as the Confederate States of America. However, President Lincoln was assassinated shortly after the victory.
Whitman wrote the poem as a tribute to the late president who he revered as the man responsible for keeping America together through the troubled times of civil war. Lines 1-8 The poem’s first lines introduce the controlling metaphors that build up the rest of the selection. The first line introduces the metaphor of the “Captain” which is actually Whitman’s representation of Abraham Lincoln and the second line introduces the “ship” which is the metaphor for the United States of America. The “fearful trip” is the metaphor that Whitman used for the American Civil War.
Both lines express the end of a struggle (the Civil War), with the second line describing the victory as hard won by saying that the ship “weathered every rack”(Whitman). The second and third lines indicate joy and relief, with people “exulting’ as the ship finally docks. This line is followed by sudden surprise. Whitman makes use of the repetition of the word “heart! ” to denote that something shocking had happened. What happened is elaborated upon by the succeeding three lines at varying degrees of disclosure.
The sixth line is subtle, only hinting some act of violence with the “bleeding drops of red”(Whitman) that denote the drawing of blood. The seventh line gives a victim for the violent act described in the sixth by mentioning that the Captain had fallen on the floor and it is only on the eight line that the captain’s death is confirmed. Lines 9-16 The 9th and 10th lines both express Whitman’s lamentation at the irony of his “Captain” dying just after they had achieved victory. In desperation, he asks the impossible of the dead “Captain” such as to “Rise up!
” or “hear the bells. ” and entices the corpse with the prospect of fanfare. This continues through the 11th and 12th lines where Whitman blends both the public’s celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s military victory and their lamentation for his assassination, with “bouquets” being more commonly used on events such as the former and black “ribboned wreaths” on the latter. There are also various descriptions of a massive crowd with words like “shores a-crowding” and “the swaying mass” which sends the notion that the entire nation are celebrating and mourning the late president.
The 13th to 16th lines detail an expression of denial on Whitman’s part to accept the death of his “Captain”. The speaker dismisses the “Captain’s” death as a dream. Whitman describes himself assisting his “Captain” by offering his arm. In the 13th line, the speaker also refers to the “Captain” as “Father”, perhaps to emphasize how Whitman perceives Abraham Lincoln as the man who kept America together. It’s “Father” so to speak. Lines 16-24 In the 16th line, the speaker is brought back to the reality of the “Captain”, his “Father’s” demise.
The “Captain’s” lips are described as “pale and still” and in the 17th line, the more definite signs of death such as not feeling anything and having no pulse are given. The speaker again makes reference to the ship’s achievement because of the “Captain” from the 18th to 19th lines. He describes the ship as having been able to dock safely with its object won. This is pertaining to the Civil War waged by secessionists who the American government had triumphed against under President Lincoln’s leadership.
The last four lines present the speaker’s point of view regarding the victory. While he commands the shores to “exult” his “captain’s” honor, he himself decides to continue mourning his loss. In the last two lines, the speaker finally faces the reality of the “Captain” has indeed “fallen cold and dead”.
Whitman, W. “O Captain My Captain”. Poetry-Online. 20 July 2007. <http://www. poetry-online. org/whitman_o_captain_my_captain. htm> Gale, Thomas. Exploring Poetry. Gale Group, 1997.