“O, Captain! My Captain!” was written by American poet Walt Whitman and was first published in 1865. The poem is created as an elegy in honor of Abraham Lincoln, whom the poet admired. Therefore, the work has a particular value from the historical context perspective as it refers to the president’s death. The poem is composed of three stanzas, nine lines each. The author uses figurative language to describe the nation’s feelings through the imagery of a crewman.
In the first part of the poem, the poet introduces the safe arrival of the ship at the port to the reader. It can be identified that the speaker is a crewman on the ship, as he shouts, “O Captain! My Captain!” (Poetry Foundation). Such an address can also indicate a more personal relationship of friendship than just subordination. The crewman tells his captain that the difficult journey is over, and they have completed it, while in the port enthusiastic people are already waiting for them. In the first part, one can also identify the first metaphor comparison of the poem. The captain represents Abraham Lincoln, while the ship symbolizes America, and the Civil War, in turn, is presented as a “fearful trip” (Poetry Foundation). However, further, the poem takes an unexpected turn, which the poet foreshadows with the words “grim and daring” (Poetry Foundation). The captain is dead, and the narrator is overwhelmed, which is reflected in the repetition of one word, “heart” (Poetry Foundation). The character’s grief may also symbolize the grief of people at the death of Lincoln.
In the second part, the speaker cannot believe what happened because the whole celebration on the shore is in honor of the Captain. Metaphorically, America celebrated victory in the Civil War and, in particular, President Lincoln. However, the author also foreshadowed the tragedy of what was occurring on the shore. Bells and flags can be used in the event of mourning, just as the crowd gathered with “bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths” (Poetry Foundation). Further, the assumption of a more personal relationship of the crewman to the Captain is confirmed when he addresses him as “dear father” (Poetry Foundation). Metaphorically, Americans could view Lincoln as the father of the nation, as the author reflects. The speaker, like the people of America, could not believe in the death of their leader.
In the third and concluding part, the crewman is starting to accept the tragic fact. The ship returns to port, and the speaker concludes that their journey is over “with the object won” (Poetry Foundation). The author says that although the president died, the Civil War is over, and the people of America, one way or another, except Lincoln’s death as a fact. The crewman expresses an even greater bond with the captain, calling him “my father” (Poetry Foundation). He probably considered him a mentor and guide in difficult times, who helped him mature and overcome difficulties. In the closing lines, the author describes that some will celebrate victory, while others will continue to grieve over Lincoln.
In the poem, the same refrain often appears, symbolizing the speaker’s awareness and acceptance of the Captain’s death. The author also tries to involve the reader in this tragedy, repeatedly mentioning that the Captain “fallen cold and dead” (Poetry Foundation). The author also uses other descriptions of death to heighten the drama and emotion of the reader, such as “lips and pale and still” and “bleeding drops of red” (Poetry Foundation). Thus, the poem represents the poet’s feelings or how he imagines an entire American nation’s sentiments regarding the death of Lincoln and the end of the Civil War.
Poetry Foundation, 2001. Web.