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A Summary and Analysis of the Poignant 'O Captain! My Captain!'

Summary and Analysis of the Poem 'O Captain! My Captain!'
'O Captain My Captain' is one of the famous poems by American poet Walt Whitman. This poem is a memoir depicting his deep admiration for Abraham Lincoln. This Penlighten post gives an analysis of this poem.
Neha B Deshpande
Last Updated: Dec 09, 2017
Did You Know?
In the 1989 movie 'Dead Poets Society', students stand up for the character played by Robin Williams, to honor their teacher and show their support towards him, by standing on their desks and reciting Whitman's poem 'O Captain! My Captain!'. This was regarded as one of the best scenes of the actor's career.
Walt Whitman, born in 1819, was one of the poets who won both, accolades of praises and criticism for his work. He was an unconventional poet indeed, and his self-published book 'Leaves of Grass' was one of his works that garnered much attention. Considered highly progressive as compared to those times, it was but obvious that he faced criticism. 'O Captain! My Captain!' was written by Whitman as a memoir for his idol Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln was fatally shot on April 14, 1865, by John Wilkes Booth. Following his death on the succeeding day, the whole of America mourned over the loss of their great, beloved leader. This poem is a tribute by poet Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln. He was extremely fond of the president and his profound thoughts and leadership qualities. The poem was first published in November 1865, in New York's 'Saturday Press'.
John Wilkes Booth
John Wilkes Booth
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 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.

―Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman
Walt Whitman
Summary and Meaning
In the first stanza, the poet describes the cheer, ecstasy, and celebration, because they've reached ashore. However, their celebration is halfhearted, as their captain is cold and lifeless. He has lost his life in a bid to sail the ship ashore. He tells the captain that they've passed all hurdles, high tides, and achieved what they were looking for. However, their much-loved captain no longer lives to see their dream come true.

Many times he addresses the captain as his 'father', beckoning him to rise up and participate in the celebrations. However, as he watches the cheering crowd, his 'father' figure still rests lifeless in his arms. He calls to the captain to get up and witness their victory. However, it is all in vain, as he knows that he will not respond. Still something in his heart prays for a miracle. This poem has a rhyming pattern, which is very unusual of his other free-verse poems.

This poem depicts his deep admiration for the honorable president. This is one of the elegy poems by Whitman. It depicts the successful end of the Civil War, and also the way it came to an end. An advocate of democracy, Whitman had deep faith in Lincoln. His death was mourned by millions, and there were many mourning poems written in his memoir. Just as the Civil War had almost come to an end, his captain, the president, was assassinated.

Though the mood is festive among the sailors, the poet has a heavy heart, and is in a dilemma whether to celebrate the achievement of their dream or mourn over the loss of their beloved captain. Lincoln's death evidently impacted Whitman, like millions of other Americans. The martyr could not live to witness success of his dream.
Respect and Admiration: The poem depicts the poet's deep faith in Abraham Lincoln.

Celebration and Success: The poem displays how the ship has survived through all odds, and managed to reach ashore, the way all the civilians of America managed to survive the Civil War.

Death and Pain: Everything comes with a price, and so does victory. In the bargain to achieve what they wanted, countless people lost their lives, and a great hero also succumbed to it. Thus, amidst all the joy, there is pain for the departed in the hearts of all.
The entire poem is a metaphor that symbolizes the plight of Americans during the Civil War. An advocate of democracy, Lincoln was a much-loved leader in America. The 'fearful trip' is nothing but the turmoil and bloodbath during the Civil War. However, despite everything, the ship managed to reach ashore, which proves that the war has almost come to an end, and they have achieved their 'prize', i.e., they have won the battle.

Though the tone of the poem starts with a cheery and joyous mood, it shifts as they realize that, though they reached their destination and achieved what they wanted, they are now bereft of their beloved leader. There has been much use of the poem in popular culture. After Robin William's death, this poem was reminisced by many, with numerous people tweeting the poem.