Figurative Language in O Captain! My Captain!

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Burke

Erin has taught college level English courses and has a master's degree in English.

Walt Whitman wrote the poem 'O Captain! My Captain!' as an ode to President Abraham Lincoln after his assassination. Explore the figurative language in this poem, which includes metaphor, imagery, apostrophe, synecdoche, and allusion. Updated: 12/23/2021

Definition of Figurative Language

Figurative language is an umbrella term to describe many different techniques that bring flavor and life to writing. Without it, poetry would be nearly impossible. Many different literary devices make up figurative language.

In this lesson we'll look at some of the examples from Walt Whitman's stirring poem 'O Captain! My Captain!', a poem about his feelings on the Civil War era of the United States. Let's take a closer look to see how Whitman uses figurative language to achieve a moving effect in his poem.

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  • 0:04 Definition of…
  • 0:37 Definition of a Metaphor
  • 2:12 Definition of Imagery
  • 3:03 Definition of the Apostrophe
  • 3:42 Definition of…
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Definition of a Metaphor

Metaphor is a figurative language that implies comparison between seemingly unlike things. The entire text of 'O Captain! My Captain!' functions as an extended metaphor to honor his subject, Abraham Lincoln. The poem is an ode to the president written after his assassination. Let's break down the metaphor to its main parts.

The Captain as Lincoln

In Whitman's metaphor, Lincoln is the captain in the poem. The captain has seen his ship through tough times but ultimately is successful, returning home to a hero's welcome. Sadly though, the captain has 'fallen cold and dead.' The captain lies on the deck of the ship, implying that he died while at his post. The comparison to Lincoln is clear: Lincoln also died at his post, that is in the middle of his presidency.

The Voyage as the Civil War

Like the Civil War, the 'fearful trip' the Captain has been on is over. It has been a long and difficult journey, but now the prize is won. The prize is the preservation of the Union after the long and difficult war between the states.

The Ship as the United States

The captain's ship has been through tough times, having 'weather'd every rack.' The ship is a metaphor for the United States, which has been battered with heavy loss of life and property during the Civil War. Despite the difficulties, the ship is ultimately 'anchor'd safe and sound.' The United States have stayed together, and having passed through the war, are safe again.

Definition of Imagery

Imagery is another type of figurative language. Any time a poet uses language that appeals to the reader's senses, he or she is using imagery. Whitman uses it to great effect in this poem. There is a sense of celebration in 'O Captain! My Captain!'; we can almost hear the bells pealing, the people 'exulting' and the 'bugle trills.' We can feel the crush of bodies all around in 'the swaying mass,' the people all 'a-crowding.'

But not all of the imagery is happy. We also have the stark image of the fallen captain on the deck. We see the 'bleeding drops of red' and the captain's 'lips. . . pale and still.' The vivid description paints a picture of the pale, unmoving captain in sharp contrast to the bright, red blood.

Definition of the Apostrophe

Whitman begins his poem with an apostrophe when he writes, 'O Captain! My Captain!' Apostrophe is another facet of figurative language. It involves a writer addressing a dead or absent person, an inanimate object, or an idea. In this case, the poet speaks directly to the deceased captain. The purpose of an apostrophe is not to elicit a response from the addressee, but to stir up emotions in the reader. The poet's impassioned cry to the noble, dead captain is an example of that appeal to emotion.

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