Thursday, October 08th, 2009 | Author:

In “Memories of President Lincoln”, Whitman eulogizes the fallen president and writes his most mainstream poem “O Captain! My Captain!”, an simple extended metaphor in the which the ship is the nation, and Lincoln is the fallen captain.

At last, Whitman rhymes! And not surprisingly, he shows effortless mastery of rhyme. This is the most conventional Whitman poem I’ve come across.  Here Whitman is truly the poet of democracy, because ordinary people can understand and appreciate this poem–and they did.  It was the only poem that was put in an anthology during Whitman’s lifetime, his hit single. For the average American, this is likely the only exposure they’ll ever have to Whitman. Who can forget the melodramatic closing scene of Dead Poets Society when the first boy stands on his desk and says “O Captain! My Capitan” ?

In “O Captain! My Capitan!” we hear a new poetic voice. Whitman has put himself and his experimental voice aside. I don’t feel the exalted universal “I” in this poem. The focus in this poem is on “my”. Whitman is humble, focusing on his role as the captain’s subject and as a son.

Each stanza is 8 lines, (4 long followed by 4 short) and begins with a reference to the captain and ends with “fallen cold and dead”.  The sixth and eighth lines always rhyme, bringing drama emphasis to “dead” the final word of each stanza.

In the first four lines of each staza, the rhyme scheme varies. In stanza 1, the first two lines rhyme (“done” and “won”), the stanza 2, there is no rhyme in the first four lines. In stanza 3, line 1 and 2 rhyme (still and will) along with 3 and 4 (done and won), a recapitulation of the rhymes found in the first two lines of the poem. This makes the poem catchier and easier to memorize than his free verse works.

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
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.

According to Reynolds, Whitman was embarrassed by the poem and its regular meter and melodrama. Horace Traubel recorded Whitman as saying, “I’m honest when I say damn My Captain and all the Captains in the book.” But Whitman recited the poem often during his popular Lincoln lecture series in the 1870s. It’s not uncommon for great artists to despise their most popular works.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage, 1995. print

Whitman, Walt. O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman Poetry & Prose. Library of America, 1996. p.621. pint

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  1. Avatar of nadiae says:

    It amazing to me to even hear that Whitman could be embarassed by a poem when his can be so controversial!

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