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Walt Whitman's O Captain, My Captain

During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) volunteered as a nurse in Union hospitals outside of Washington, D.C. As an ardent Union patriot, Whitman wrote one of his most famous works, the elegy “O Captain! My Captain!” in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. Walt Whitman's O Captain, My CaptainFor Whitman, the Civil War was the central event of his lifetime, and Lincoln’s assassination was a shocking conclusion to four years of unrestrained bloodletting.

Walt Whitman never personally met Abraham Lincoln. Yet the cause of Unionism cannot be disconnected from Lincoln, who transformed the conflict from a petty fight over states’ rights into the higher cause of emancipation. Whitman opens the poem by noting that “our fearful trip is done” and that “the prize we sought is won.” The imagery then shifts to the deck of the ship with “my Captain lies/Fallen cold and dead.”

Unlike most of Whitman’s other poems, which are largely written in free verse, “O Captain! My Captain!” has a strict rhyme structure, following the pattern of four longer lines followed by four shorter ones. Further, Whitman employs the extended metaphor of the captain of the ship in order to drive home the influential way in which Lincoln was responsible for directing the Union during the war. The poem became so popular during Whitman’s lifetime that in later years he expressed regret for having written it, after being called upon to recite it so many times.

The word captain referred to in the title and at the beginning of each stanza not only refers to President Lincoln; it also carries a double purpose. 

  1. First, it is an allusion to the president as Commander-in-Chief of the Union Army.  Just as a captain of a ship is responsible for all hands aboard a ship, so to is the President responsible for the actions of the military.
  2. The second purpose of the word captain in the poem is to start a string of metaphors which tell the reader the subject of the poem.  “Oh Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,/The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won…” (1&2). 

The word captain is a metaphor for the office of the president.  Just as a captain guides his ship, so too does the President guide the nation.  The fearful trip is a metaphor for the Civil War that just ended.  The ship, of course, is America.  Every rack refers to the battles fought in the war, and the prize the nation sought is ultimate victory over the southern states in the war.

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