Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won;
- The speaker is shouting out to his captain (“O Captain!”) that they’ve finally made it home after a frightening trip.
- They were on a ship that survived, or “weathered,” strong winds (a.k.a. “racks”).
- They’re probably tired after such a grueling voyage, but apparently they’ve succeeded in their mission, or what the speaker calls their “prize.” Whatever this mission or prize was, we know that it wasn’t easy to get.
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring:
- So the speaker is a sailor on the ship, and the ship isn’t just yet safe in the harbor (which would be a good place to safely “park” a boat).
- But the boat is in sight of the land, and there are people on the shore cheering and ringing church bells as they approach (hip-hip-hooray!).
- The people on the shore watch the boat come in.
- Although keel usually refers to a ridge that goes along the underside of the boat, the word can also refer to the boat as a whole, as it does in line 4. When a part of something is used to stand for a whole (for example, “all hands on deck” means all the people should be on deck, not just their hands), this is called a synecdoche.
- In contrast to the happy people on land, the boat is described like a ghost ship: “grim and daring.”
- The speaker is foreshadowing, subtly telling the reader in advance that something is going to happen and it isn’t going to be pretty.
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
- The sailor calls out again, but this time it isn’t for the captain.
- He belts out the word “heart,” and this could mean that he is shouting out a) to his captain to keep heart, as in not to give up, or b) to his own heart, as if in pain.
- We think you can read this either way. If you read it the first way, with the heart representing the captain’s will, then you’re dealing with a symbol, as some part of the captain is used to represent an abstract quality (his will or courage).
- If you read it the second way, though, and think the speaker is calling out to his own heart, then you’ve got an apostrophe on your hands, friend-o. This is a call to an abstract thing that can’t possibly answer back. It’s a cliché to speak from the heart, but, really, hearts have no mouths, so they don’t speak very well.
- When you think heart, though, you do think blood. It turns out that there is a lot of it here.
- All of a sudden, drops of blood are on the deck of the ship, and the speaker notices that his captain is dead. Bummer