O’ Captain! My Captain
This poem by Walt Whitman was written in 1895 honoring Abraham Lincoln right after his assassination. Whitman admired Lincoln as the “Redeemer President” since he came from the “real west” upbringing (the log hut, the clearing, the woods, the prairie, the hillside etc.) which Whitman longed for. After becoming President, Lincoln gained Whitman’s support and improved his stature as his presidency progressed and as the North won the Civil War, preserving the Union, in turn, inspiring this poem to be written after his death (Lorcher).
Walt Whitman pays tribute to Abraham Lincoln in this poem, which takes the form of an ode that is characterized by continued noble emotions and appropriate dignity of style. This is also possible due to the fact that most odes begin with an apostrophe. Metaphorically speaking, the fallen captain who Whitman expresses is Abraham Lincoln. Whitman constantly provides metaphors throughout the poem. For an example, Lincoln is the captain who has "fallen cold and dead," being assassinated shortly after the Civil War had ended; the "fearful trip" is the Civil War; "the prize we sought" is the preservation of the Union, something which both Whitman and Lincoln felt was the most important reason for fighting the war with "the ship" symbolizing the United States. Whitman’s grief is emphasized by the contrasting examples of recurrent celebrations of victory and expressions of death. Whitman also stresses the importance of victory by calling out "Exult O shores, and ring O bells,” but the mourning of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination prevents him from participating in the celebrations of “the prize we sought.” He reiterates the image of the dead captain by saying, "O heart! heart! heart! O bleeding drops of red,” which encourages the idea that the poet and the reader is constantly reminded that he has "fallen cold and dead." It’s easy to figure out what these phrases symbolically represent because of the event that it has to do with. But even easier if you know how to relate something symbolically, “Some symbols do have a relatively limited range of meanings, but in general a symbol can’t be reduced for standing for one thing. If they can, it’s not symbolism, its allegory” (Foster 97-108).
Taking a historicist criticism approach on this poem, it is clear that the language, characters and events that the poet includes reflect the current events the current events of the author’s day because he keeps restating it throughout the poem (Brizee, and Tompkins). The event that happened during the time was the triumph of the American Civil War and the presidency/assassination of President Abraham Lincoln which Whitman lived through. By observing the kind of language that Whitman uses in his poem, you can infer that this poem was written in old America during the late 1800’s which all supports the idea these elements reflect the events that happened during Whitman’s time. Another thing that you can infer about this poem is that even in the present, the words in the text haven’t changed their meaning from the time that it was first composed. Anyone who read the poem during the time period when it was created still could easy decipher the meaning of it if they were to read it now.
The way that Whitman presents the events is unusual in a way because of the contradicting contrasts that he reveals which would surface as confusing if it weren’t presented in poetic manner. As soon as he starts to hint that he is about to celebrate the victory of the Civil War, he then leads us back to the mindset that the president has been killed destroying the cheerfulness that he has exemplified through the previous lines of celebration. For an example, after writing the lines “The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting/While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring” and “Rise up-for you the flag has flung-for you the bugle trills/For bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths-for you the shores a-crowding/For you the call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning,” He follows with a melancholy stanza that reminds the reader the president is dead ending the stanzas with the line, “fallen cold and dead.” By saying this, it is easy to conclude that it is almost as if he is presenting the hint that there is no use in celebrating the victory of the Civil War if the person who had the most influence on the outcome isn’t able to be a part of the victory. This indication is easy to come across when analyzing this poem because the reader can easily interpret the sentiments that are expressed in this poem by the way that Whitman presents it. Also, knowing the way Whitman presents the events, and how the reader interprets it, you can get taste of his culture. One of the reasons why Whitman was a strong advocate for Lincoln was because he wanted a president that came up from the “real west” which is why he supported Lincoln from the start (Trinh). You can tell that the poet was probably brought up in the “real west” as well because of the attributes that he wanted to next president to possess, primarily having the knowledge of how America was like in the west where the experience of growing up were different from other Americans who experienced growing up in the north where it was easier, that way, a president who originated from the tougher parts of America would have a better knowledge how to deal with the issues that were president during that time. This was the culture that was insinuated through Walt Whitman’s work including “‘O Captain, My Captain.” (Folsom, and Price)
The fact that this poem can be presented to support or condemn the event can go either way because there is more than one event in the poem that can affect the reader’s perspective on which event can be viewed as good or bad, therefore supported or condemned. It can condemn the event of the president’s assassination due to the drastic impact it had on America at the time, and also condemn the Civil War victory implying that it was the prime reason for the president’s assassination. It can also be observed from the supporting perspective, saying that the Civil War Victory is good because it had an enormous influence on America in the present, and also support the assassination of Lincoln saying that the south would’ve suffered more had he lived due to the fact that they would have to be readmitted into the union and to deal with an occupying army. Though the decision can go both ways, most people would support the events that happened in the poem except for Lincoln’s murder so this portrayal does not criticize the leading political figures or movements of the day. The literary text of this poem also functions as a part of a continuum of text from the same period including his other works because the emotions that Whitman exonerates from his poem are the same emotions that are expressed if you read the history of Abraham Lincoln and what he did during the Civil War all the way down to his death with any other source of information during this time period. These emotions are grief, lamentation, sorrow and sadness that coexist with the sentiments of celebration, festivity and merriment due to the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the war victory.
We as readers can use literary work to "map" the interplay of both traditional and subversive writing that circulates in both the present culture and the culture during the time this poem was composed. We can do this by acquiring the same sentiments that the poet went through during the time that he wrote the poem, and applying them in our mindset state of being when reading the poem so that we better understand the poem, and use it as knowledge in how society has changed from the time that the poem was written to the present. By empathizing the poet’s state of being, we will better understand the mutual effect between the traditional discourses and the subversive elements of writing (Brizee, and Tompkins).
This poem also does not fully consider the traditionally marginalized populations due to the kind of events that this poem is about. Aside from the fact that it reminds us of the suffering that the south went through after the American Civil War, this piece was done with the intent to honor someone in lieu of bringing someone or something to attention.
Word Count: 1,573
‘O Captain, My Captain
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! The 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. (Whitman 57-58)
Brizee, Allen, and J. Case Tompkins. "Purdue OWL: Literary Theory and Schools of Criticism." New Historicism, Cultural Studies. 1st Ed. Lafayette: Purdue OWL, 2012. Web. 3 Apr 2012.
Folsom, Ed, and Kenneth M. Price. "Walt Whitman." Walt Whitman Arcive. 1st. (2012): n. page. Web. 4 Apr. 2012.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. 1st. Harper Collins: New York City, 2003. 97-108. Print. Lorcher, Trent . "'O Captain, My Captain." Bright Hub Education. 1st. (2012): n. page. Web. 4 Apr. 2012. . Trinh, Hoc. "American Literature." 'O Captain, My Captain By Walt Whitman. 1st Ed.New York: Hellum Inc, 2007. Web. 4 Apr 2012.. Whitman, Walt. “'O Captain, My Captain”. Six American Poets. Ed. 1st Ed. 1st. New York: First Vintage Books Edition, 1991. 57-58. Print.