Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” is a mournful song sung by a sailor grappling with dealing with both the joy of being victorious and the grief at the loss of his Captain. At first, he praises his Captain for guiding his crew and ship to a safe harbor through an extensive and perilous journey and sees the celebration on shore. But then the sailor notices the body of the Captain on the deck of the ship, unnoticed by the crowd celebrating the safe return of the ship. Whitman makes use of meter and rhyming to carry through the sensation of grief the sailor is consumed with.
Whitman wrote this poem in response to the assassination of the 16th president, Abraham Lincoln. He draws a connection to Lincoln’s role as the head of the United States to that of a captain, and from the United States to the ship that Lincoln commands. Whitman, himself, is the sailor praising Lincoln’s brilliance but grieving at the loss of his life. The poem is broken into three stanzas, but in an unusual form, and has a thin line of rhyme throughout the poem.
The form and sound also speak to grief exhibited by Whitman within the lines of the poem itself. The poem joins both the feelings of celebration and joy to the feelings of grief and sadness, a great representation of the end of the Civil War. In the first stanza, Whitman already combines the ever-present emotions of joy and grief.
The first four lines exclaim joy at finally landing a safe harbor despite undergoing a treacherous journey, “our fearful trip is done;/ The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won” (Whitman lines 1-2). These lines to refer to how America still stands, even after going through a civil war that nearly destroyed it. It is also the first time that Whitman draws the connection to America to a victorious ship that is carried out throughout the poem. The ship becomes a well-crafted symbol of America and its resilience. The “prize” mentioned here is also the success of the Union in winning the Civil War, and in maintaining the unity of the United States of America. Whitman also introduces the captain of this brave ship in the first line, “O Captain! My Captain!” here the Captain is president Abraham Lincoln.
Despite never meeting Lincoln face to face, nor caring for him in the beginning of his presidency, during the Civil War Whitman came to adore the President. Whitman wrote this poem after the assassination of the President in 1865, so this poem is love song written to him in remembrance. Whitman was hit hard once Lincoln passed away, and this is seen in the sudden change of emotion in the first stanza. The last four lines carry the grief the sailor, Whitman, feels when he sees the dead body of his Captain, “But O heart! Heart! Heart! /O the bleeding drops of red, /Where on the deck my Captain lies, /Fallen cold and dead” (6-7).
Here the sailor is the only one to notice that the captain has “fallen,” the other people are “all exulting,” at the safe approach of the ship. This sense of grief and isolation can be felt when Whitman repeats the word “heart” three times in line five. Here it signifies the heartache that consumes the sailor while the rest of the people celebrate. This is an obvious callback to the then-recent assassination of Lincoln and the grief that must have weighed on Whitman.
In the beginning of the second stanza, Whitman returns to the joy of victory and again calls to his captain. This time he begs the captain to “rise up and hear the bells” (Whitman, line 9), even though he knows that the captain is lying dead on the deck. Perhaps the sailor is swept up in the joy that the rest of the crew expressing, or perhaps he is not ready to acknowledge the grim reality before him. His request for the captain to wake up is to see the festivities that are occurring all because of his guidance during the perilous journey, “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” (Whitman 10-12). The crowd is the people of the United States that have not found out the truth of his death yet and are hoping to see their president alive and well. They are celebrating all that he has done, abolishing slavery and preserving the unity of the country after a long and deadly war.
The final two lines show that the sailor is grappling with living in the reality captain less, “It is some dream that on the deck/You’ve fallen cold and dead.” He is unconformable with carrying on in a reality that is joyous when a huge tragedy has just occurred. This is rather strange since, in the preceding lines, he draws the lifeless body into his arms, “This arm beneath your head” (Whitman 14). He has reality in his arms, however, he still wishes that his death was “some dream”. The sailor also calls the Captain “dear father” which signifies the great respect the sailor had for his captain or the respect Whitman had for Lincoln during the War. Finally, the third stanza sees the sailor’s acceptance of his Captain’s death.
It has a soberer tone and is more reflective of grave reality Whitman and the sailor is dealing with. The sailor describes the lifeless body still in his arms, “his lips are pale and still;/My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will” (Whitman 17-18). This is a vivid description of a dead body that readers can see clearly, and pushes the death of Lincoln straight into the minds of the readers.
The sailor again calls out to his captain, “My Captain does not answer,” here it could recall the beginning of the poem since this is a direct response to the sailor’s call “O Captain! My Captain!”. This suggests that the middle stanza was a dream, an illusion, a wish for his captain to still be alive. Whitman does use repetition to connect the dream to reality, he repeats the phrase “fallen cold and dead” to acknowledge that no dream could remove the pain of reality.
The next line the sailor again acknowledges his respect for the captain as a guiding light, “My father,” and once again Whitman attaches this sentiment to Lincoln as the father of the United States. The concluding six lines summarize the whole poem:”The ship is anchored 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” (Whitman 19-24)Again, the sailor mentions that the ship the captain led is safely at the end of its dangerous but successful voyage. Then he mentions how the people are again rejoicing on the shore, and how the bells ring. And in conclusion, the sailor sings of how he is the only one who walks the deck carrying his grief on his back knowing that his captain is dead. Whitman includes this summarization to force the reader to acknowledge his grief and to realize that although a war has been won, they should feel the sadness of the loss of a great leader.
Whitman incorporated grief into the very structure of the poem. “O Captain! My Captain!” employs the poetic form of a dirge, which is a lament that stems from the early Christian Church’s practice of writing morning prayers for the dead, and for others in need of prayer. The poem is also a song since it is broken into verses and choruses. The stanzas represent the verses and sing of the safe arrival of the ship.
Whitman also makes use of rhyming couplets to form the stanza, which unusual for him. Although, not all the couplets have a direct rhyme, like the beginning lines of the poem with the words “done” and “won,” (Whitman 1-2) other lines have a slant rhyme, which means the words slightly rhyme like in lines 9 and 10 with the words “bells” and “trills”. Whitman makes use of direct and slant rhymes to remind the readers that although the poem may be considered a song, it is not joyous one rather it is a song of lamentation and the grief the sailor feels has disrupted the very being of the poem.
On the other hand, the last four lines between stanzas embody the choruses and sing of the dead Captain and the faithful sailor that finds his body. The uneven lines evoke introspection and reflection on the grief the sailor feels. Whitman carries the rhyme into these lines as well, if the first two and last two are combined into two separate lines. For example, combining lines 13 and 14, and then lines 15 and 16, the last words of “head” (Whitman 14) and “dead” (Whitman 16) rhyme.
Another way, Whitman conjures the feeling of a song is through his adoption of the iambic meter, which makes practice unstressed and stressed syllables, for example in the lines 17-18 “his lips are pale and still/… he has no pulse nor will” (Whitman 17-18). The meter carries the reader throughout the poem while feeling the grief the sailor undergoes at the sight of his captain’s death. Whitman also uses a measure of rhythm called the amphibrach which is an example of an unstressed syllable that is followed by a stressed syllable that is then followed by another unstressed syllable. This is introduced in the first line of the poem “O Captain! My Captain!” (Whitman 1) and is also found in lines 11-12 “the shores a-crowding/… faces turning” (Whitman 11-12). Whitman varies his rhythmic form to draw in the readers into the sadness weighing on the sailor, and to remind the reader that the grief is powerful enough to alter the entire thinking of the sailor by evoking a song but then not making it flow completely.
Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” is a poem that makes use of multiple extended metaphors: he is the sailor singing the song, Lincoln is the brave Captain that has passes, and the United States is the weathered ship. These metaphors connect the story of a sailor witnessing the dead body of his captain alone, to that of the reality of Whitman grieving after Lincoln’s assassination. Not only do the words of the poem speak of Whitman’s grief but the structure of broken stanzas deliberately show that his grief is strong enough to shake the traditional form of a poem. Whitman also utilizes the poetic form of a dirge and has a rhythmic pattern throughout the poem to attest to song-like qualities of the poem.
“O Captain! My Captain!” is a song that laments the loss of a life and the joy of a hard war won