Walt Whitman: Poems

Walt Whitman: Poems Video

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Watch the illustrated video summary of the classic poem, “O Captain, My Captain!” by Walt Whitman.

Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain!” is a poem to a recently deceased ship captain. The speaker of the poem is one of the sailors who celebrates the safe and successful return of the ship and mourns the loss of his great leader. The poem can be classified as an “elegy,” an expression of sorrow or a lamentation for the dead.

Whitman wrote this poem shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. The “Captain” represents Lincoln and the poem itself is an extended metaphor memorializing his Presidency and the Civil War.

Juxtaposing relief and despair, the poem addresses both the Union victory and the uncertainty which would follow. The first lines express a celebratory spirit: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done, the ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won.” The speaker then notes the cheering crowds. The ship represents the war-weathered nation following the Civil War and the “prize won” is the salvaged Union.

In the second stanza, the speaker reveals that his Captain's dead body is lying on the deck. In the first line of this stanza, the speaker implores the Captain to "rise up and hear the bells," wishing the dead man could witness the people’s elation. Everyone adored the captain, and the speaker admits that his death feels like a horrible dream.

Whitman's poetry places a lot of emphasis on the individual. The speaker
struggles to balance his personal feelings of loss with the celebratory mood following the successful voyage: The last lines read, “Exult O shores, and ring O bells! / But I with mournful tread / Walk the deck my Captain lies, / Fallen cold and dead.”

While the War claimed many lives, it led to the reunification of the Union, so many Americans felt similarly divided. Here, the speaker’s inner thoughts set him apart from the crowd.

Whitman has been called “the father of free verse,” a style that refuses regular meter and rhyme scheme. "O Captain! My Captain!" is different, however. It is composed of three eight-line stanzas, each following an AABBCDED rhyme pattern.

The traditional form reflects the solemnity of the poem’s content: each stanza closes with the words "fallen cold and dead." The regular meter is reminiscent of a soldier marching across the battlefield—fitting for a poem commemorating the end of the Civil War.