The poem O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman was composed in 1865 shortly after the assassination of the sixteenth President of the United States of America – Abraham Lincoln. It is classified as an elegy as it mourns the demise of the President.
In the opening stanza, the speaker is a citizen of the United States of America and an admirer of President Abraham Lincoln, who has witnessed the American Civil War. The Captain, addressed in the poem, is Abraham Lincoln, the hero of the war. He is being compared to the Captain of the ship, and the ship is the United States herself. The long journey which has been the central idea of the poem is one of the most horrible wars – the Civil War (1861-65), in the history of America. These three metaphors have been used throughout the poem. Thus, the poet has devised extended metaphors in the poem to justify its spirit. The war had changed the history of the country; it had disfigured the contour of the country. The people had seen devastating and terrible deaths in the struggle between the Northern and Southern states. You have already learnt in the overview of the Civil War about the causes of the War. Here, the port symbolically represents the destination of the ship. What do you think could be the destination of the metaphorical ship? Yes, it is peace, harmony and equality among people. As you have already learnt, slavery was one of the leading causes of the war. Lincoln proclaimed the Emancipation of the slaves in 1862, and a number of slaves were freed. In 1865, the Confederates surrendered to the Union and with this Lincoln’s dream to unite the nation was accomplished. He was re-elected as the President in 1865 but was shortly assassinated. The unexpected assassination of President Lincoln had shaken Whitman. He was in pain and shock.
The speaker in the poem was in shock when he found the Captain dead on the deck. Here you would notice the change in the mood and tone of the speaker. The sudden loss has brought grief and misery to the speaker, his heart shrieks in pain.
In the opening line, the speaker addresses the Captain as ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ which shows his intimate relation with the Captain. He uses the word ‘My’ which itself stands for the possessiveness, closeness and attachment of the speaker to the Captain. Here, you will observe the sentiments of the poet through the phrase ‘O heart! heart! heart!’ for the Captain. Whitman has created visual imagery through the words ‘O the bleeding drops of red’ – the reader can visualize the death scene on the deck, with the Captain’s dead body smeared in blood. The speaker is in the same state of mind as someone who is bereaved and experiences a sudden loss of a close relative or someone dear to him. Whitman has portrayed Lincoln as a national hero whose death has brought great loss to the nation. His personal sentiments have been attached to the poem. The reader sways away in the grief of the brutal and horrible killing of the President.
Whitman has chosen the words in a manner that create a scene of sudden befallen misfortune amid the festive mood. The shadow of death dominates the celebratory and victorious moments and turns it into wailing.
In the second stanza, the speaker displays his inability to accept the death of the Captain. Whitman considers Lincoln as a father figure, and his death is an irreparable loss for the country. Through the stanza under observation, you learn that the enthusiastic crowd is present at the port to pay respect to their brave leader. The metaphorical ship, the United States of America, has sailed through the trials and tribulations throughout the journey of the War. The Civil War ended in 1865 in favour of the Union, which ultimately preserved the integrity of the nation. After seeing the Captain in a horrific situation, the speaker tries to wake him up to make him realize his importance to the country. The crowd here represents the sentiments of the citizens of America. He also tells the Captain that the arrangements done by the people are dedicated only to him. The tolls of bells, the sound of the bugle, the wreaths and the flags are all for him. He is the celebrity of the moment whose arrival is eagerly awaited by the crowd. Here, in the phrase ‘Here Captain! Dear father!’, you can observe how the speaker pleads to the Captain, like a child or a son, to get up and see the ceremonial moment. He even puts his arm beneath his head to raise it. The phrase ‘dear father’ metaphorically indicates Lincoln’s status as a symbolic father of the nation. When he realizes that the Captain is dead, he imagines himself to be in a dream, because he is so sorrowful that his mind refuses to accept the death of the Captain.
You can also observe how Whitman has again created visual imagery through his selection of words to make the reader picture the scene of an unexpected death of a father amid ceremonial enthusiasm. This is well-portrayed by the words “it is some dream that on the deck”, which shows how the speaker has lost touch with reality.
In the last stanza, you will observe that the speaker has accepted the reality that the Captain (Lincoln) is dead. To confirm one last time, the admirer (the speaker) tries to feel the Captain’s pulse and declares that it’s silent and no more pulsating. He also notices the corpse’s lips that have now turned pale in cold blood. Ultimately, he declares that the Captain has not conscious. Here, Whitman writes about the scene of Lincoln’s death – one that has caused him great misery and pain. He has intertwined the emotional complexity of the speaker at a personal level with the rejoicing people at the port.
Now, you can easily understand the speaker’s declaration in the poem through the line ‘The ship is anchored safe and sound’. The poet, Whitman, metaphorically states the end of the Civil War in 1865. The Union of America has achieved the purpose of the struggle. The long-standing decade-old disputes have come to an end. The peace, harmony and integrity of the nation have been restored. People of all races and creeds will now gain equality and justice. All that Abraham Lincoln, the guiding figure during the war, had set out to accomplish, he has fulfilled. The four years of the war have no doubt, been destructive and horrible in the history of America, but whatever Lincoln had endeared to gain, he had achieved. The speaker in the poem declares that the prize or the reward of all these struggles in the form of preservation of harmony has been realized. The ‘ship’ or you can say, the country has sought its reward at the cost of losing a father figure of the nation.
The tone of the poem suddenly takes a turn when the speaker states his mourning while the outer world is celebrating. He is in agony, and his tormented soul expresses his grief with the phrase ‘Exult O shores, ring O bells!’ The reader empathizes with the psychological condition of the speaker, who is dealing with such a huge loss.