O Captain! My Captain!, Walt Whitman – an analysis


Who doesn’t think of Robin Williams and Dead Poets Society when they hear this line?

Gut Reaction
My gut reaction is a mixture of sadnesses, one at the fact that Robin Williams is no longer with us, and one for this fictional character coming to terms with the death of his captain.

What does it all mean?
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;
Taken at face value, this is a nautical poem about a ship that’s made a successful run and is returning bittersweetly because its captain is dead. This poem is quite famous for being a bit of a love letter/fanboy lament from Walt Whitman to Abraham Lincoln. Well. I say fanboy lament when I mean elegy if I am to attempt at being respectable (sorry…). The scene is set on the USS America and it’s quite easy to visually swap a sea captain for Abraham Lincoln being the captain of America. Our fearful trip is done is a nod to the relief of the Civil War being over.

Of course, we have the nautical terminology – rack (mass of high clouds driven by the wind, symbolic of stormy weather?), the port, the keel (beam around which the hull of a ship is built – imagined as steady) and so on. I wonder if that is also reference to Abraham Lincoln or his leading of America – strength and solidity, while those following eyes are perhaps the people of America or the rest of the world? Does it feel like America is built around a solid keel or that America itself is now in the position to be the keel for the rest of the world?) If the vessel – if America – is grim and daring, is this pride on the one hand from a citizen’s point of view and awe on another from an outsider? Perhaps it’s just an acknowledgement that America will now be stronger following the Civil War.

But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The repeat of heart is almost like the beating, or pounding of the heart in anxiousness. The picture painted is one of a captain dead on the deck in his own blood. The final line of this stanza, fallen cold and dead, suggests the captain has been dead for some time, which poses the question, how long has the author been in mourning if he’s only writing this poem after the captain/Lincoln has been long dead? The bleeding drops of red may or may not be another reference to the civil war? If Lincoln was assassinated on April 15th 1865, that’s almost a month before the civil war was officially over. So Lincoln’s deathbed was a pool of blood because the war was still continuing?

If this is metaphorical, America can be seen as the successful ship coming home and thriving – after the civil war? – even though the captain – Lincoln – is long dead. It feels like we’re saying that Lincoln’s legacy is what makes America great and that he will always be a part of the ship – America – despite being dead. The ship, if we’re assuming it to be America, is also representative with how far it has come, again, it feels like a nod to Lincoln’s presidency shaping it.

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;
There’s a pleading here for the captain – Lincoln – to return from the dead and receive his well-wishers and those who wish to give praise. It’s a celebration here of all of his efforts, to make America great? Does it also show the turnout following his death and the wreathes of flowers laid for him in wake? The lone bugle sound is haunting and often used at remembrance services, is this another nod to the adoring crowds being at a funeral or wake rather than waiting for a ‘ship’ to dock?

Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
Now we have a change in the intimacy. Captain feels like ruler, leader, a part to play, but father takes on other things like emotions and care for someone. The love someone might have for their captain – in terms of respect and loyalty – is somewhat different to that for a father. And again – father, Lincoln as the paternal head of America – there’s a lot of parallels here. Father of America, sure, that makes sense, and also it alludes to the feelings of the poet towards Lincoln too, a familial kind of love and respect? It feels very much like the poet is trying to come to terms with Lincoln’s death, he’s still in denial – is some dream…’ and the repeat of ‘fallen cold and dead’ makes me feel that the mourning process – for both America and Whitman perhaps after Lincoln’s death – was a long, slow burning one. His grief feels so raw.

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;
Here comes the realisation, the acceptance, that the captain – Lincoln – is not coming back. He is gone, no matter the author’s feelings (or pulse). America – the ship – has been anchored/set up securely by Lincoln’s work and it’s voyage – the fluctuations through history – is now over, its object – solidarity? Unity? – has been achieved. The fearful trip has been worth the difficulties.

Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Again, a final acceptance that life has to move on and the captain/Lincoln is dead. Mourning will continue but at least the disbelief has gone.
Lincoln was assassinated in 1865 and it feels very much like it took Whitman a long time after to recover.

Form – the vaguely technical stuff
Division and order
Three stanzas, and elegy or mourning poem.

Disbelief, denial, yearning.

Suggested rhyme scheme

Similes and metaphors
America – ship, captain/father – Abraham Lincoln.

Author’s relationship with their subject
Respect, loyalty and love.

Other points of view (ideas from other sources)
There seems to be a general consensus on this one.

Signing off
I confess that I don’t know much about American history aside from the colonisation and genocide we oh so wonderful Europeans were party to. I apologise for my ignorance.

One of the lovely ‘side effects’ of poetry analysis for me has been the studious side of things. Analysing poetry has given me insight into histories, stories and biographies that otherwise I would remain clueless about. This poem is case and point!

I think the pain at losing such an important person in Whitman’s life is leaping from the page (or screen) when you read this poem. The disbelief is tangible – look at all you’ve achieved or lead to achieve, and you’re not even here to get the praise you deserve – and I just can’t accept that you’re gone.

There is affection there, and it makes me wonder if anyone would think to write poetry about our current leaders. An Ode to Obama, or a Canzone to Cameron – though perhaps what he deserves is a doggerel. It would fit with his political style, wouldn’t it?

Either way, this culture of adulation and/or ridicule of people in the public eye is a far cry from the open respect I find in reading about Walt Whitman and Abraham Lincoln. Oh, what a different world we live in.

I really like this poem, I thought I’d get swept up and lost in the association of the poem with Robin Williams but that was just a happy aside. The emotion is very clear and honest throughout, and I’d recommend hearing some versions of it spoke out loud. I particularly enjoyed Sai Kolla, Kim P, and Tom O’Bedlam.

Poetry Foundation


When I read this I think of the song… exceptionally unrelated but… American Pie. And American Idiot.


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