Howard is an avid reader who likes helping others find interesting things to read.
The elegy "O Captain! My Captain!" by Walt Whitman was published in November 1865, about seven months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. This is significant, as we'll get into later.
It was an immediate success with the public, and many students had to memorize it. Contributing to this is the poem's basic structure—couplets with a standard meter and end-rhymes.
Whitman didn't think the poem was worthy of all the attention it received. He came close to regretting that he'd written it.
"O Captain! My Captain!" Line by Line
We'll work through the poem, taking four lines at a time. We'll consider the literal story that's being told, and also the figurative one.
The speaker is a crewman on a ship. He tells his Captain that their difficult trip is over and its been a success. They're nearing the port, where a crowd waits to celebrate their return.
On a figurative level, the opening lines introduce the metaphorical comparisons in the poem:
- The Captain is Abraham Lincoln.
- The ship is America.
- The "fearful trip" successfully completed is the Civil War.
The speaker also refers to "my" Captain, indicating a more personal relationship than that between a superior and subordinate.
The speaker reveals their success came at a high cost. The Captain is dead. The speaker is dejected.
The repetition of "heart" in the fifth line works to establish the speaker's grief over the Captain's death. Figuratively, it could represent the nation's initial reaction to Lincoln's death.
There's a repetition of "my" Captain, emphasizing the feeling the speaker has for his superior.
The speaker implores his Captain to get up because everything's for him. The bells, the music, the flowers, the wreaths and the flag are all for him. The gathered crowd is there to celebrate the Captain, and they can't wait to see him. The speaker shows denial by asking someone he knows is dead to "rise up". He can't fully accept that it's true.
Metaphorically, America celebrated President Lincoln after the Union's victory in the Civil War. The feeling was short-lived, as the celebratory feeling will be in these lines.
All of the things waiting at the dock work for a celebration and a funeral:
- Bells and bugle trills can be used for a victory or for mourning.
- A flag can be flown to give glory or at half-mast.
- Bouquets, wreaths, and a gathered crowd are common to both events.
"My" Captain appears for the third time.
The crewman now refers to his Captain as "dear father", showing he viewed him as much more than a commanding officer. His denial continues as he says the Captain's death must be a dream.
As a metaphor, Lincoln is being called a "father"—he was more than a leader as well, as America looked to him as a father-figure. Many Americans would have found it hard to believe Lincoln was dead, thinking it must be a dream.
The speaker isn't talking to his Captain now. He's beginning to accept that he's dead. The ship reaches port safely. He reaffirms that they've completed their objective.
Likewise, individual Americans would eventually accept that Lincoln was dead. The fact remains that the Civil War was successfully fought.
Again, the speaker says "my" Captain and adds "my" father. There's no doubt the speaker has lost much more than a commanding officer. The Captain has seen him through a difficult trip; his judgment has saved the speaker and the rest of the crew. He views himself as his Captain's son, as someone who was guided into maturity.
The crowd will celebrate the ship's triumphant return. The speaker, however, will mournfully walk the deck where his Captain died.
Similarly, the nation in general will rejoice over their victorious military campaign. Some, however, like the speaker, will be in mourning over Lincoln's death. This tragedy will overshadow the greater victory.
The last use of "my" Captain shows the speaker forgoing the celebration to continue mourning. He's not ready to live on his own, even though soon, he will have to.
How does the meaning of the refrain change?
The refrain, "fallen cold and dead", appears three times in the poem. It highlights the speaker's emotional journey as he deals with his Captain's death. It also brings the reader along, creating and then releasing the tension over whether this tragedy has really happened.
The first time it's stated is the first time we're told the Captain is dead. The speaker, though, doesn't accept this reality yet. In the next line, he asks his Captain to "rise up."
Similarly, the second time comes right after the speaker holds out hope that "it is some dream."
In the third and final instance, the speaker accepts what has happened. He has to deal with his grief before leaving the ship.