““O Captain! My Captain”by Walt Whitman

ab lincoln

In “O Captain! My Captain”, Whitman is writing an elegy to the recently assassinated President Lincoln.  Whitman, a great admirer of President Lincoln, lived in Washington during the time of the Civil War and often saw him riding horseback around town.  The horrific, untimely death of the President inspired Whitman to expresses his own feelings towards the death of President Lincoln and wrote this as a metaphor of a sailor speaking to his captain as they have just ended an arduous voyage.

Whitman begins this poem with the dactylic anaphora, “O Captain! my Captain!”, followed by iambic meter, to combine in tetrameter, which signifies a serious, heavy tone. He continues to mix the meters throughout the poem, putting iambic meters at the ends of most lines which is typically used by poets to keep the mood light and upbeat; however, Whitman uses the iambic meters in this elegy to keep the action moving forward: “our fearful trip is done/…the vessel grim and daring/…rise up and hear the bells” etc.

Whitman uses the format of three octet stanzas made up of two distinct quatrains. The only rhyming couplets begin each stanza, “done…won/ still…will/” and a near rhyme “bells…trills” . The following lines of the octet are unrhymed and indented in succession in the second quatrain as a visual impression in typography to signify a falling mood as Lincoln lies dying.  For example, in line five, Whitman uses the first indented line with  anaphora, “But O heart! heart! heart!” ,to signify Lincoln’s heart beat is ceasing.  There is also foreshadowing in this stanza as the people on the shore, unaware of the Captain’s death, are “all exulting” while the “steady keel, the vessel grim and daring” heads towards the shore. In line eight, the last line of the first stanza, the sailor realizes that his Captain has “Fallen cold and dead”.  Now the mood shifts to this realization.

In the second stanza, Whitman uses anaphora as the sailor repeats his address “O Captain! my Captain” in trying to revive him from the dead.  He also uses caesura hyphen breaks and the phrases: “rise up and hear the bells; / Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,…” to signify the sailor trying to call him to come back to life and witness the tributes by his crewmates as well as the crowds on the shore who are welcoming him home from the long journey.  This journey is perhaps a metaphor for the Civil War which President Lincoln led to a victory for the Union.

In the second quatrain of this stanza, the sailor takes President Lincoln in his arms and calls him “father”.  This signifies the close relationship that the sailor felt with his Captain which is a metaphor for the close relationship that Whitman felt to President Lincoln.   Whitman again uses anaphora, “You’ve fallen cold and dead”, to signify the realization that his Captain is still not responding.

In the final stanza, the sailor finally accepts that his Captain will never revive.  He refers to his Captain again as “My father” to signify this close relationship.  In line four, the speaker calls the voyage victorious and that the objective was won, which signifies again President Lincoln’s victory of the end of the Civil War.  The final four lines of the poem, Whitman uses the indented lines, the contrast “but” and anaphora, “Fallen cold and dead” ,to signify the finality of President Lincoln’s death and the reality that he and the nation will now have to live in the world without the leadership of their “Captain”.


Ocaptain whitman notes
Whitman’s annotations

Whitman published this poem in the New York Saturday Press in November, 1865, trying to evoke triumph in the midst of despair. Every April,  Whitman gave a memorial lecture on the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination and would end with this threnody by reciting “O Captain! My Captain!”.

Copyright 2016 by Robyn Lowrie.  May be quoted in part or full only with attribution to Robyn Lowrie (www.frenchquest.com)