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Poem Analysis of O Captain! My Captain!

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Instructor: Lindsey Coley
'O Captain! My Captain!' is a poem grieving the loss of president Abraham Lincoln. Analyze the extended metaphor, meter, and form of this poem which turn a tragedy into a literary art piece. Updated: 12/21/2021

Origins of 'O Captain! My Captain!'

It was supposed to be a time of celebration. A nice April breeze was blowing through the states. The Civil War had just ended after General Lee surrendered at the Appomattox courthouse in Virginia. The North had won, and slavery was on course to being abolished.

And then the shot rang out. Abraham Lincoln was dead. It was just six short days after the end of the war. A nation grieved, and Walt Whitman grieved with them. 'O Captain! My Captain!' became Whitman's elegy for Abraham Lincoln. An elegy is a poem that mourns the dead.

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  • 0:03 Origins of ''O…
  • 0:41 Extended Metaphor
  • 3:08 Meter
  • 4:04 Form
  • 4:54 Lesson Summary
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Extended Metaphor

In his elegy, Whitman uses the extended metaphor, or the consistent use of a figurative idea to portray a literary reality throughout a work of art, of Lincoln as a ship's captain to portray Lincoln as the nation's leader.

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.

As the poem describes a ship just arriving in the harbor to a grand celebration, the nation is literally just ending a war and is ready to celebrate. In the poem, the captain of the ship sees the 'shores a-crowding' and the 'eager faces turning' as the ship sails in. While in reality, the nation is looking to their president with admiration and excitement and in need of leadership for what will happen next.

But the captain lays upon the ship's deck 'fallen cold and dead.' He will not waken. In the real world, the president is gone, and just as the poem's narrator, an assumed crewman, 'walks with mournful tread,' Whitman walks with mournful tread in the new reality of his beloved nation.

In his grief Whitman has created a dirge, or a song for the dead. This is because Whitman considers his poems as songs and creates them in that manner using meter, form, and here, extended metaphor.

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