“O Captain! My Captain!” Literary Analysis
Every great nation’s past contains a great leader who sacrificed everything for his or her country. Abraham Lincoln gave his life after striving to abolish slavery. Soon after Lincoln’s murder, Walt Whitman wrote an apostrophe poem to Lincoln. In this eulogy, Whitman praised Lincoln’s accomplishments and mourned his death. In “O Captain! My Captain!”, Walt Whitman uses repetition, symbolism, assonance, and metaphors to portray the theme that every great leader should stand ready to lay down his or her life.
Whitman uses repetition to show uncertainty about Lincoln’s death and symbolism to relate his victory and his death. When “O Captain! my Captain!” (1, 9, 13) is repeated it shows Whitman’s growing uncertainty about Lincoln’s assassination. The first line has an encouraging tone; however, with each repetition the tone carries more desperation. Lines five and six use the same desperate tone to show that Whitman still wants Lincoln to be alive: “But O heart! heart! heart! / O the bleeding drops of red,” (5-6). Whitman shows his acceptance of the death at the end of each stanza with a calm tone: “Fallen cold and dead. / You’ve fallen cold and dead. / Fallen cold and dead” (8, 16, 24). The use of repetition provides different tones and gives emphasis to specific feelings. Starting in the first line and continuing throughout the poem, Whitman uses symbolism to relate Lincoln’s victory and death. In stanza two, Whitman states: “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;” (9-11). Everything listed could have been used to congratulate Lincoln on his victory when he returned home. Nevertheless, those things could represent ways to mourn Lincoln’s death. Whitman utilizes assonance to provide structure, and he makes the entire poem an extended metaphor to represent Lincoln’s sacrifice for this country. Whitman uses assonance to make “O Captain! My Captain!” a more fluent and structured work of literature: for you the bugle trills;
his lips are pale and still;
From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won; (10, 17, 20). Not only does assonance create flow and structure, but it also makes certain words or phrases attract more attention which makes the line more memorable. Whitman’s clever use of assonance adds another impressive dimension to his work. It separates “O Captain! My Captain!” from the mediocre poems and raises the bar. The poem is a eulogy to Abraham Lincoln even though his name is never mentioned. The entire poem is an extended metaphor: “O Captain! my captain! our fearful trip is done; / The ship has weather’d every rack, … / Here Captain! dear father!” (1-2, 13). Whitman is comparing a ship to the Union. The captain and father is representative of Abraham Lincoln, and the trip is being referred to as the Civil War.
Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves, but he gave his life for his valiance and effort. Walt Whitman used repetition, symbolism, assonance, and an extended metaphor to capture Lincoln’s sacrifice in a eulogistic poem. This poem is a testimony that if people do their absolute best, then they will have an impact on everyone around them. A person’s impact may cause his or her legacy to stick around to be remembered in the history books. Whitman creatively portrayed a pivotal moment in history to something as every day as a captain and his ship.