O Captain! My Captain!

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Whitman's notes for a revision of "O Captain! My Captain!"

"O Captain! My Captain!" is an extended metaphor poem written in 1865 by Walt Whitman, about the death of American president Abraham Lincoln. The poem was first published in the pamphlet Sequel to Drum-Taps which assembled 18 poems regarding the American Civil War, including another Lincoln elegy, When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd. It was included in Whitman's comprehensive collection Leaves of Grass beginning with its fourth edition published in 1867.

Analysis[edit]

"O Captain! My Captain!" is a poem written by Walt Whitman in 1865. The poem is classified as an elegy or mourning poem, and was written to honor Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. Walt Whitman was born in 1819 and died in 1892, so he lived through the American Civil War. Being born close to the founding of the country, he knew people who were a part of the American Revolution. Through this he experienced the unification and division of the United States. Walt Whitman was extremely patriotic and wrote many poems about the prominence of America. He also wrote poems urging people to fight for what is right.

The main political and social issues during Whitman's time were slavery and the rights of African Americans. Whitman was self-described as the poet of America and, during the Civil War, the Union. Whitman wanted to see the end of slavery; this was his hope for America. However, it broke his heart to see the nation fighting. He admired Abraham Lincoln immensely, sharing his commitment to the Union and his opposition to slavery.

The captain in the poem refers to Abraham Lincoln who is the captain of the ship, representing the United States of America. The first line establishes a happy mood as it addresses the captain. The phrase "our fearful trip is done" is talking about the end of the Civil War. The next line references the ship, America, and how it has "weathered every rack", meaning America has braved the tough storm of the Civil War, and "the prize we sought", the end of slavery, "is won". The following line expresses a mood of jubilation of the Union winning the war as it says "the people all exulting"; however, the next line swiftly shifts the mood when it talks of the grimness of the ship, and the darker side of the war. Many lost their lives in the American Civil War, and although the prize that was sought was won, the hearts still ache amidst the exultation of the people. The repetition of heart in line five calls attention to the poet's vast grief and heartache because the Captain has bled and lies still, cold, and dead (lines six through eight). This is no doubt referencing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Whitman's sorrow for the death of his idol.

In the second stanza the speaker again calls out to the Captain in a light-hearted manner and dictates to "rise up and hear the bells", to join in on the celebration of the end of the war. The next three lines tell the captain to "rise up" and join in on the revelries because it is for him. He is the reason for their merriment: "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". Everyone is celebrating what Lincoln accomplished; this is not only the abolishment of slavery but also the formation of the Union and the coming together of people. Again the poet calls to the Captain as if he had never fallen. The poet does not wish to acknowledge the death of his beloved Captain, and he even asks if it is some dream (line 15) that the Captain has fallen "cold and dead".

The third stanza begins in a somber mood as the poet has finally accepted that the Captain is dead and gone. Here there is vivid and darker imagery such as "his lips are pale and still" and the reader can picture the dead Captain lying there still and motionless with "no pulse nor will". In line 17, the poet calls out "My Captain," and in line 18, the poet refers to the Captain as "My father". This is referring to Lincoln as the father of the United States. Lines 19 and 20 are concluding statements that summarize the entire poem. The United States is "anchor'd safe and sound". It is safe now from war with "its voyage closed and done, from fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won". The country has accomplished its goal of the abolishment of slavery and the unification of people after a fearful war. In line 21, the examples of apostrophe, ordering "shores to exult," and "bells to ring" are again referring to how the nation is celebrating while "I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead".

Throughout the paper there is a distinct rhyme scheme, which is unusual for Whitman. The rhyme scheme in "O Captain! My Captain!" is AABCDEFE, GGHIJEKE, and LLMNOEPE for each stanza respectively. Two examples of alliteration are in line 10 "flag is flung", as well as in line 19 "safe and sound". Repetition occurs many times in this poem, for example "O Captain! My Captain", and "fallen cold and dead".

Text[edit]

An 1887 handwritten draft of Whitman's 1865 poem "O Captain! My Captain!

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.

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.

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.

Modern versions[edit]

In 1996, Israeli songwriter Naomi Shemer translated the poem to Hebrew and wrote music for it. This was done in addition to several prior translations in order to mark the anniversary of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination which took place one year earlier, in 1995. The song is since commonly performed or played in Yitzhak Rabin memorial day services all around Israel.

A musical version of the poem appears on Carolyn Hester's 1965 live album At Town Hall.[1]

"Passage", a Z. Randall Stroope composition for SATB choir, has a similar message to "O Captain! My Captain!" and actually quotes one section: "Captain my captain, rise up and hear the bells. Rise up, for you the flag is flung! For you bouquets and ribbon'd wreaths".

In popular culture[edit]

The 1989 film Dead Poets Society also makes repeated references to the poem, especially when English teacher John Keating (Robin Williams) tells his students that they may call him "O Captain! My Captain!" if they feel daring. At the end of the film, the students show their support to the recently dismissed Keating in defiance against the school's headmaster, by reciting the phrase while standing on their desks.

In the 1996 science fiction novel The Truth Machine, the protagonist places a back door in the book's otherwise infallible lie detector that allows him to avoid detection when he repeats fragments of the poem in his mind.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Planer, Lindsay. Carolyn Hester At Town Hall at AllMusic. Retrieved April 16, 2014.