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O Captain! My Captain!

O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

Masses

Symbol Analysis

Whitman just loved teeming masses. He was cuckoo for crowds. Throughout his poetry, he celebrates the throngs of Manhattan just as much as he does the lone traveler. In “O Captain! My Captain!,” we can assume that the cheering crowd is a synecdoche, a small population that represents the majority of Americans who were happy to put the war behind them. Although they do not feel the personal loss that the speaker does, we can see in their joy that the captain’s death was not in vain.

  • Line 3: The speaker doesn’t immediately see the people on the shore. Instead, he can just hear them “exulting” (rejoicing) at the ship’s return. Must be quite a party.
  • Line 4: The eyes following the ship represent a synecdoche, standing in for all the people on the shore who watch the ship come in. Far from being stalkers, their attention is a good thing. Although they are removed from the captain and the ship, the crowd on the shore is paying close attention to the ship’s progress, just as the American citizens would have been invested in the fortune of their country during and after the Civil War.
  • Lines 11-12: Woo-hoo! The crowd on the shore is throwing a party for the captain. If the speaker is correct, they’re cheering for the captain (“For you they call”), not the ship, nor the prize he won. Their connection to their leader is reaffirmed here.
  • Line 21: The speaker wants to keep this party goin’. When he calls, “Exult, O shores,” he’s not talking to the sand or the dunes. The shores here are used as a symbol to represent the crowd that greets the ship. In turn, those crowds are meant to represent the whole of the American population. It’s a symbol within another symbol. Very clever, Mr. Whitman!

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