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					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

        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


       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


       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
      rGroupName=erde79 591&version=1.0>.

Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain!” 1865. 13 Nov. 2008
“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
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

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.