Adv. English 11
Literary Analysis Paper
Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain My Captain”
Walt Whitman was a very big influence on writers today. His poem, “Oh Captain My Captain” uses line length and word choice to represent a wide range of emotion from joy to sorrow. The poem is:
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.
This poem by Walt Whitman is a symbolism poem resembling president Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. The poem begins with the narrator feeling overjoyed because the "fearful trip is done," (Whitman 1). Whitman displays this feeling of joy with words that imply same.
The first couple lines of the poem begin the metaphor upon which the rest of the poem builds. In this poem, the “Captain” is a substitute for Abraham Lincoln, and the “ship” is the United States of America. “The fearful trip” is the Civil War, which had ended just prior to Lincoln’s assassination. The ship is returning home to cheering crowds having won “the prize” of victory, which had returned victorious from the Civil War. The reappearance of “O Captain! My Captain” in one sense the speaker is addressing his Captain directly, but in another respect he seems to be speaking to himself about his Captain. The repetition helps to understand the uncertainty he feels at the Captain’s loss.
Lines 5-8 communicate the unpleasant news that the Captain has somehow fallen dead after the battle. The repetition of “heart! heart! heart!” communicates the speaker of the poem’s horror at realizing that his Captain has died. The poem is then as much about the “I” of the poem and how he comes to terms with his grief, how he processes this information.. The “bleeding drops of red” are both the Captain’s bleeding wounds and the speakers wounded heart. The broken lines are the underlying rhythm of the poem.
In the second stanza, the speaker of the poem tells his Captain to “Rise up and hear the bells.” The speaker mourns that his Captain has died, after leading his crew bravely to victory. At the same time Whitman blends two distinct scenes: one in which crowds gather to receive and celebrate the Captain (Lincoln) upon his return from military victory; and the second in which people gather to mourn him as a fallen hero. The bells of the second stanza in celebration of military victory; however, knowing the great Captain and leader has died the bells might also symbolize funeral bells. Similarly, the “flag,” is flown in honor of the Captain both as a symbol of rejoicing and victory; the tradition of flying the American flag at half-mast when a respected American dies.
In Lines 15-16 the speaker asserts that this must all be a bad dream. Here the poem captures the speaker’s denial. The emotional impact of Lincoln’s death has made it almost impossible for the speaker to accept. The quote “fallen cold and dead,” is apparently addressed to the Captain. The effect is the speaker’s difficulty in coming to terms with his Captain’s death. Even though his Captain is dead, the speaker continues to speak to him as though he were alive.
In lines 17-18, the speaker faces up to the reality of his Captain’s death. The details and images in these lines all serve to reiterate that the Captain is deceased: lacks of a pulse and a will. The speaker in no way addresses his Captain directly but speaks of him entirely in the third-person. He has finally accepted that his Captain is dead.
Lines 19-24 suggest the internal division suffered by the speaker of the poem. Having accepted that his Captain is dead it would seem he can now return his attention to the military victory. The speaker of the poem chooses the individual over the larger nation. While “Exult O shores, and ring O bells” is a call for rejoicing, the speaker himself will not celebrate but will walk “with mournful tread,” knowing that his Captain is indeed “Fallen cold and dead.” The speaker thus celebrates the end of the Civil War but continues to express his need to mourn his fallen hero.