O CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN
“O Captain My Captain” is an elegy by Walt Whitman on the death of Abraham Lincoln, the then President of United States. One of the best known poems of Walt Whitman, it was written in 1865 at once after the death of Lincoln. This poem is written in nine quatrains and organized in three stanzas. It follows AABBCDED rhyming scheme. Whitman employs sustained metaphor, a complex metaphor, throughout the poem. O Captain My Captain
“O Captain My Captain” was first published in The Saturday Press on November 4, 1865. Later it was included in Whitman’s Sequel to Drum-Taps and then collected into his Leaves of Grass in 1867. Whitman revised the poem many times and the publication was in his 1881 edition of Leaves of Grass.
O Captain My Captain is one of his four poems along with “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d”, “Hush’d Be the Camps To-day” and “This Dust was Once the Man” written to commemorate the death of Lincoln. This is Whitman’s only poem to be anthologized during his lifetime. Although this poem mourns the death of Lincoln, it never mentions his name.
O CAPTAIN MY CAPTAIN SUMMARY
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.
Whitman directly addresses the Captain of the ship (the Captain is Abraham Lincoln, the President of United States). The speaker exults that their long journey has almost come to an end. The ship has survived the strong cyclones and the journey has brought them the victory which they have been striving for. The port is near and he can hear the sounds of the bells from nearby temples and the people are exulting as they are eagerly waiting for the Captain. On the shore, eyes are staring at the steady and brave vessel nearing the port. Suddenly, the captain is seen lying on the deck, cold and dead, with bleeding drops of red.
The language of the poem is figurative. Whitman uses extended metaphor to describe the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the end of the American Civil War. Lincoln was the 16th President of the United States and the first President to be assassinated. The Captain of the ship in the poem is Abraham Lincoln. At once Whitman came to know about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, he was heartbroken. He wrote this poem to capture the mood of the national mourning on the President’s sudden demise.
The ‘ship’ in the poem is the United States. The country had been fighting a Civil war and became successful at the end. ‘The fearful trip’ indicates the horrors of civil war. They had won the war and harvested the fruit which the war bore. The people were reunited. In exultation, the people were waiting to celebrate the victory and the hero of the war – the captain of the ship – the president of the country. Suddenly, the hero was assassinated, Whitman and people were heartbroken to see him lying cold and dead. The poem starts happy, but the mood changes suddenly. The speaker cries out ‘O heart! heart! heart! O the bleeding drops of red’. The Captain lies motionless and still. O Captain My Captain
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.
Upon seeing the Captain lying dead on the deck, the speaker calls him ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ to rise up to hear the bells in some nearby shrine are being rung, the flag is flung, the trumpet is being blown, the people are eagerly waiting with ‘bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths’ at the shore to celebrate the victorious Captain. So the speaker calls him to rise up and stand to accept the standing ovation to be given by his beloved ones. The speaker dreams that the Captain, lying on the deck with his arms beneath his head, is dreaming something. But then realizes that he has ‘fallen cold and dead’.
Whitman was awestruck to know the President was gone. He couldn’t believe his death. Although he was fully aware that Lincoln was no more, he wished it to be a dream and still believed that he would come up to his feet again and see his swaying people were waiting for him to celebrate. In this stanza, he calls the Captain, his father. In that sense, Lincoln was not only his father, he was the father of all people, the father of the nation. The president would never come back, gone for ever. O Captain My Captain O Captain My Captain
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.
Finally the speaker comes back to full conscious and realizes the painful truth. He worries his Captain is gone for ever. His lips has become pale and still. He doesn’t answer his questions. The speaker adds that his father doesn’t feel his touch and react, his heart has stopped beating. Although the ship has been anchored safe ashore, it seems that it’s its final voyage and would never go back to sea again. Its final voyage has been successfully completed with ‘object won’ and it has been its most troublesome. The speaker walks around the deck with mournful tread hearing the bells ring and the people celebrate. His Captain lies, ‘cold and dead.’
Simultaneously the speaker (Whitman) is both happy and sad throughout the poem. He is happy with the victory they have won and sad that the man behind the victory is no more. The speaker goes near the Captain and finds him lying still unable to answer his questions. The Captain is unable to move. Whitman experienced a strange feeling of perplexion, whether to celebrate the victory in the Civil War or mourn for the death of his father. His anxiety grew and his heart became heavy. Whitman’s heart stayed with Lincoln’s body on the deck (cemetery). People rejoice the recent victory, while Whitman mourns Lincoln’s death.
In O Captain My Captain, Whitman never mentions Lincoln’s name directly. Throughout the poem, he uses extended metaphor. Whitman calls Abraham Lincoln ‘a Captain’ (O Captain My Captain) and he compares the country to ‘ship’. The ship has been landed safely on the shore by the Captain and the fearful trip (Civil war) is done. The country has undergone the Civil War and become victorious (the people are reunited). Lincoln is lying dead on the deck i.e, the cemetery. The ‘voyage’ in the poem is a long journey, ‘the Civil War’. The ship’s voyage almost comes to an end i.e, the Civil War is almost over.
O Captain My Captain uses alliteration in the following lines: Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills / The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.
An Imagery evokes a sensory experience or creates a picture with words for a reader. Whitman uses the following imagery in this poem: O the bleeding drops of red / Fallen cold and dead / My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still / But I, with mournful tread.
Whitman personifies the following lifeless objects: O the bleeding drops of red / O shores, and ring, O bells! The bleeding drops, the shore and the bells never speak. Whitman calls them as if they are speaking to them. O Captain My Captain O Captain My Captain
Apostrophe is a poetic device used to call someone who is not present or present afar: The title of the poem O Captain My Captain uses this device to call the President Abraham Lincoln who is dead.
WHEN WAS LINCOLN ASSASSINATED?
Lincoln was on 15 April 1865, Petersen House, Washington, D.C., United States. He was killed by John Wilkes Booth. While Lincoln was watching the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater, he was shot at his head by Booth on 14 April 1865 using 44 caliber derringer pistol. Lincoln died the following day.
Walt (Walter) Whitman is one of the popular poets of America till today, the author of the well-received poetry collection Leaves of Grass. Whitman helped bridge the cap between Transcendentalism and Realism. Being a poet during the period of transition from Transcendentalism to Realism, he utilized both these ideas in his poetry. Apart from poet, he was also an essayist and journalist.
Whitman is often called as the ‘Father of Free Verse’ in America for his innovative poetic language which has no specific form, meter and rhyme. Perhaps, he is the first democratic poet in America and so he is called the ‘Bard of Democracy’. Themes in his poetry and other works mirror the primary values of America’s founding and often celebrate the common man.
Whitman was born in 1819 in Long Island, United States. His father was Walter and his mother was Louisa Van Velsor. His childhood days were unhappy due to his family’s poor economic status. When he was just four, his father moved his family to Brooklyn. He dropped his schooling at eleven and went for work to support his family. At the beginning, he worked as an office boy for lawyers, then finally became an editor in the weekly newspaper ‘The Long-Island Star.’ During this period, he started writing poetry publishing anonymously in The New York Mirror, a weekly newspaper in the New York city. Soon, he left the journal and later became a teacher at various places. O Captain My Captain O Captain My Captain
Early in 1850s, Whitman started writing his famous poetry collection Leaves of Grass. He continued to edit this until his death. The last edition was called as The Deathbed Edition of Leaves of Grass. This was first published in 1855. The first edition contained 12 poems including Song of Myself, I Sing the Body Electric, Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking, A Song for Occupations, To Think of Time, Faces, The Sleepers and so on. Whitman continued to add more poems in the following editions and the final edition contained around 400 poems. Some of his poems are: O Captain My Captain O Captain My Captain O Captain My Captain
- Are you the new person drawn toward me?
- As I Ebb’d with the Ocean of Life
- Beat! Beat! Drums!
- Come Up from the Fields Father
- Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
- For You O Democracy
- Gliding O’er All
- A Glimpse
- I Hear America Singing
- I Saw in Louisiana A Live-Oak Growing
- I Sing the Body Electric
- Long, too long America
- A March in the Ranks Hard-Prest, and the Road Unknown
- A Noiseless Patient Spider
- O Captain My Captain
- O Me! O Life!
- O Tan-Faced Prairie-Boy
- On the Beach at Night
- On the Beach at Night Alone
- One’s-Self I Sing
- Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
- Out of the rolling ocean the crowd
- A Passage to India
- Patroling Barnegat
- Sometimes with One I Love
- Song of Myself
- Time to Come
- To the States,
- Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field one Night
- When I Heard at the Close of the Day
- When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
- When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
- Whoever You Are Holding Me Now in Hand
- The World Below the Brine
- The Wound-Dresser