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!
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 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.
“O’Captain! My Captain!” first appeared in the Saturday Press on November 4, 1865, and was later published in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-1866). A revised version of the poem then appears in “President Lincoln’s Burial Hymn” in Passage to India (1871) and finally in the “Memories of President Lincoln” cluster in Leaves of Grass (1881).
This dramatic elegy is broken into three stanzas and begins with the speaker shouting to his captain that their trip is done. The metaphor extends throughout the poem. The underlying meaning of the ship is the Union and the captain is Abraham Lincoln. Six lines later the speaker notices the captain on the deck of the ship after having survived tough winds. The captain lying cold and dead on the deck of the ship sets a solemn and somber tone by contrasting the scene before with celebrations of the ship’s arrival in the harbor and the captain’s death. The speaker is completely distraught at the fact his captain has passed away. The relationship between the captain and the sailor (in this case the speaker) is one of admiration for the captain’s leadership, and charisma.
“O Captain! my Captain!” is one of Whitman’s most recognized and anthologized poems––so much so that later in life Whitman was quoted as saying that he was almost sorry he ever wrote the poem. As William A. Pannapacker writes, “Whitman thought ‘O Captain!’ to be one of his weaker poems and often tired of reading it. ‘Damn My Captain,’ he said, ‘I’m almost sorry I ever wrote the poem’ (With Walt Whitman 2:304). Nevertheless, he almost always concluded his lectures with an emotional reading of “O Captain!” What makes this one of Whitman’s most famous poems is the sense of relief the fearful trip is over to celebrating victory the war is over and it wasn’t for naught, and then somber at the prospect of accepting the Captain’s death and loss. “No longer as celebrated,” Pannapacker concludes, “O Captain” “continues to be a revealing representation of the rhetorics of despair and celebration that followed the war, and it remains Whitman’s most successful attempt to reach a national audience.”
Bibliography and Further Reading Betsy Erkkila, Whitman the Political Poet (1989); Horace Traubel, With Walt Whitman in Camden vol. 2 (1915) at the The Walt Whitman Archive; Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (1980); “O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman Historical Period: Civil War and Reconstruction, 1861-1877, Library of Congress; William A. Pannapacker, J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (1998); “Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center.
Credits Composed by Cameron Slack, Fall 2018. Reading by Cameron Slack