O Captain! My Captain! – Literary Devices

Walt Whitman’s most famous poem, O Captain! My Captain!, is set in the American Civil War (1861- 65), the four-year struggle between two groups – the Northern and the Southern States. The poem was published in 1865 after the assassination of President Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth.

The speaker in the poem is devastated with his death and highlights the victorious journey past torturous and atrocious circumstances. At a moment when the entire nation has united, and peace is restored, the speaker mourns the loss of a father figure of the United States.

Literary Devices

Apostrophe

A literary device which refers a call by an individual to someone who is dead or not present there or an inanimate object.

In the first stanza, you would have observed the phrase ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ is a call by the speaker to the Captain of the ship who is on the deck, probably out of sight of the speaker or far away from him. In the second stanza the situation has changed and the Captain is now ‘unconscious’.

Further, in the phrase ‘Exult O shores’, ‘ring O bells!’ the speaker addresses inanimate things/objects.

Extended Metaphor

It refers to a metaphor which has been used by the author in a series of sentences of a prose or lines in the poems. The author takes a single metaphor and applies it at length using different images, ideas, thoughts and subjects. Here the poem under investigation reflects the following extended metaphors – The ‘Ship’ is United States, the ‘Captain’ is Abraham Lincoln, the President of United States. The ‘fearful trip’ refers to the Civil war fought between the Northern and the Southern States of America from 1861 to 1865. Similarly, the ‘prize’ is the preservation of the Union.

Alliteration

Repetition of consonant sounds /f/ in the phrase ‘flag is flung’ and /s/ in the phrase ‘safe and sound’.

  • Consonance: You will also observe the repetition of /g/ sound in the above- mentioned phrase. Such kind of repetition of consonant sounds is called Consonance.
  • Assonance: You would also observe the repetition of vowel sound in the /i/ in the words ‘trip’ and ‘ship’ in the first and second line.

Imagery

Images like ‘the bleeding drops of red’, ‘lips are pale and still’, ‘fallen cold and dead’ are some of examples of Whitman creating visual imagery which directly strikes to the reader’s mind.

Juxtaposition

The literary device to create a sharp contrast between two things side by side for the reader to compare. Here in the poem, Whitman has made a stark contrast between the cheerfulness and mourning in the last stanza when the speaker says ‘exult O shores’ ‘but I with mournful tread’.

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