Mr. Gershman Carolyn Messer Ms. Arsenault 11/14/08 ILA 9 Honors “O Captain! My Captain!” A Critical Analysis “O Captain! My Captain, our fearful trip is done. The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won” (Whitman). This prominent piece of work, “O Captain! My Captain!” was written during the American Renaissance movement, a movement home to many great poets, including Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost, and Carl Sandburg. “O Captain! My Captain!” was written by Whitman in 1865. It was published in Whitman’s book Sequel (to Drum Taps) along with another several other poems. “O Captain! My Captain!” is considered to be Whitman’s most famous work and is still being read and enjoyed today. The poem quickly became a classic, and in some schools, even today, children are required to memorize it (“O Captain! My Captain!”). Although the book is extremely admired, Whitman says I’m almost sorry I ever wrote that poem… I say that if I’d written a whole volume of my Captains I’d deserve to be spanked and sent to bed with the world’s compliments- which would be generous treatment, considering what a lame duck book such a book would have been! (“O Captain! My Captain!”). Whitman regretted writing this poem, although it was highly praised, because it was different from his other poems and wasn’t taken as seriously as he had written it to be. Walt Whitman’s poem, “O Captain! My Captain” reflects a new dawn in America with the passing from a time of security and promise to a time of uncertainty and confusion. The commitment shown by Whitman to Lincoln and his country supports a major theme of the poem: loyalty. The speaker (who most believe to be Whitman himself) shows so much commitment to his fallen leader, commonly referring to him as “my Captain” and even “my father” (“O Captain! My Captain!”). Whitman had never met Lincoln in his life, yet he felt such a strong connection to him. Whitman believed that Lincoln was the first president that really knew what he was doing and shared the same beliefs as him. That is one of the reasons why Lincoln was Whitman’s hero. This poem shows such fierce loyalty to the fallen Captain, considering that Whitman never personally knew him. Whitman shows a strong sense of commitment and loyalty to not only Lincoln, but also to his country. He was the one who had to tell the excited crowd about the death and take on the Captain’s former roles. “For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning, Here Captain! Dear father! The arm beneath your head! It is some dream that on the deck, you’ve fallen cold and dead” (Whitman). No other shipman had shown such commitment before (“O Captain! My Captain!”). Whitman’s poem is generally about the passing of a great leader, who most believe was Abraham Lincoln, while returning home from a long voyage during the Civil War. The person who discovered the captain, who is supposedly Whitman himself, had to tell the news to the crowd, who was excited for their return and not expecting the worst. The historical context is extremely important in this situation, because if it weren’t for Lincoln’s assassination, this piece of history would have never been created. “O Captain! My Captain!” was actually written just a few days after his passing (“O Captain! My Captain!”). Another prominent theme that is seen in “O Captain! My Captain!” is the coming of age. In the poem, it is difficult to miss the shock felt by the speaker. Whitman uses not only words, but several techniques to convey the true feelings of the speaker when he discovers Lincoln’s dead body (“O Captain! My Captain!”). One example of this is the repeating of exclamation points like in the line, “O heart! heart! heart!” (Whitman). This shows how the speaker is so shocked that he is unable to blurt out more than one word. Another example is how the speaker frequently refers to the dead body and how it is “fallen cold and dead” (Whitman) which shows that he is trying to force himself to believe this tragedy. The death is unexpected because of the happiness in the beginning of the poem. At the start of the poem, the ship is just returning from a successful voyage, so the death is that much more shocking (“O Captain! My Captain!”). The speaker is thinking about what the future holds for him and how the death will directly affect him. Whitman felt a sense of loneliness and apprehension because he is now forced to take care of himself after he was being guided by the Captain up until then. “This is the situation that coming of age stories typically focus on” youths who are forced by circumstances to make their own decisions” (“O Captain! My Captain!”). The final theme that is recognized in Walt Whitman’s poem is death. Death is significant in this poem, since the Captain who had successfully led his ship to shore didn’t get the chance to enjoy the crowd’s excitement and praise. “In this poem, unlike many war poems, there is no glory in death; there is no reward mentioned for a job well done on earth; the speaker makes no plans to carry on in the name of the Captain: those ideas generally come up later, once the shock of death has worn off” (“O Captain! My Captain!”). Whitman emphasizes the death of Lincoln by using and repeating the words “fallen cold and dead” (Whitman). It isn’t until the final stanza that the subject of the poem truly grasps that Abraham Lincoln is dead. Whitman changes his tone in this stanza to give the effect that the speaker has little emotion. Whitman uses the following lines from the third stanza to finalize Lincoln’s death. “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 anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done; from fearful trip, the victor, ship, comes in with object won” (Whitman). Overall, Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is extremely well-liked and admired by most readers. The three themes in the poem can help the reader understand Whitman’s perspective on the situation at hand. Whitman obviously had great respect for Abraham Lincoln, being one of the reasons he wrote the piece. The themes; loyalty, coming of age, and death directly support the idea that with the death of Lincoln, his great ideas and achievements were gone as well, and America was falling into a state of confusion and uncertainty. You can extract this idea from understanding Whitman’s use of figurative language, historical background, and the themes found in this great piece of American literature, “O Captain! My Captain!” Works Cited "O Captain! My Captain!." Poetry for Students. Eds. Marie Napierkowski and Mary Ruby. Vol. 2. Detroit: Thomson Gale, 1998. 145-160. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale. Springfield Township High School. 13 Nov. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/gvrl/infomark.do?&contentSet=EBKS&type=retrieve &tabID=T001&prodId=GVRL.poetry&docId=CX2691000021&source=gale&use rGroupName=erde79 591&version=1.0>. Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain!” 1865. 13 Nov. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com/gvrl/retrieve>. “O Captain! My Captain!” O Captain! my Captain, our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d 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 ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; Here Captain! dear father! The 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 anchor’d 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.