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The Poets

May 31, 2011

O Captain! my Captain! (e.g. Lincoln)

Abraham Lincoln is the captain to whom Whitman's poem refers. Whitman admired Lincoln dearly, was proud of the closure and success of the Civil war, and was terribly distraught at his assassination. The poem below covers all three of these realities- in fact, it covers the corresponding emotional realities felt by the poet (e.g. the shorter lines correspond to the poet’s deep sadness of Lincoln’s assassination).

Check it out (and, just curious, would you have known it was Lincoln having not had this information):


O Captain my Captain!

O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
...The ship has weathered 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 ribboned 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.



Of the Poem (Parameters):

Stanza: Octet (i.e. 8 lines per stanza)
Meter: The poem, though structured, lacks a specific meter
Rhyme Scheme: aabb xcxc (where ‘x’ represents unrhymed lines)

Some Notes:

The poem is essentially an extended metaphor
1). The captain represents Lincoln
2). The ship represents the Union
3). The fearful trip represents the Civil War
4). The prize sought is the preservation of the Union

Whitman also takes advantage of some poetic devices, here’s a few below ...

Line 2: The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won (alliteration)
Line 3: The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting (internal rhyme)
Line 5: But O heart! heart! heart! (repetition to convey anguish)
Lines 9 & 10: The end rhymes of these lines are oblique rhythms (bells & trills)
Line 10: … for you the flag is flung for you the bugle trills (alliteration)
Lines 17 & 18: The word ‘feel’ of line 18 corresponds to the end rhymes of both 17 & 18 (still & will)
Line 20: From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won (internal rhyme)

… and there are many more.


Now I haven’t studied Whitman to the extent that many others have, but I will say that one of the more admirable aspects that I find in him is his own poetic authenticity. What I mean by this is his style of writing- he lived during a time when meter was the prevalent mode of poetic expression; notwithstanding, he chose to depart from traditional forms of poetry (the poem above is a perfect example) to achieve his own level of creativity.

This is not to say that meter is too constrictive (I personally believe there’s a freedom in meter that free versing is unable achieve); the point, rather, is it take a certain amount of audacity to break away from the norm, and our poet here seems to have done this. I admire that.

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