Whitman didn’t write many poems that rhymed. He certainly stopped trying to write rhymed verse by the time he published his first edition of Leaves of Grass. Even in this poem, his rhymes vary from perfect to slant, and back again. Although the poem at times can fall into a sing-song-y pattern (for more on this, check out “Form and Meter”), it never quite allows us as readers to get too comfortable.
This sonic back and forth reflects the two tasks that Whitman had in writing this poem. He wanted to celebrate the accomplishments of Lincoln (the captain), but he also wanted to mourn the loss of the president. It’s a pretty hard balance to strike, when you think about it, but it’s one that ol’ Walt manages to pull off here. In part, he does it with the help of his funky, back-and-forth rhyme scheme.
To get the obvious out of the way first, the title—“O Captain! My Captain!”—is indeed the first four words of the poem. More than that, though, you should know is that the title is what’s called an apostrophe (not like the punctuation). An apostrophe is a poetry term for when the speaker calls out to someone (or an idea or an object) who’s not actually there. After the captain dies, the speaker is in the position of making this emotional appeal to a person who can no longer respond to him.
In this apostrophe, the first call to the captain gets the attention of the reader, but the second call of “my captain” suggests a bond between the speaker and captain. That possessive and intimate bond announces a theme that is going to get fleshed out in the rest of this piece. Also, the exclamation points add a note of desperation and excitement (though not the good kind) to the poem that follows. This poem is an urgent appeal, and the title lets us know that right off the bat.
This poem is set on a ship that’s coming into harbor. Of course, for Whitman, this was much more than a ship. This was the U.S.S. America he was talking about (for more on the importance of the ship, see “Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory”). The symbolic nature of a captain bringing his ship safely into harbor was too much for Whitman to pass up, and he milks the analogy for all that it’s worth.
The president of the country is easily converted to a captain, just as the country as a whole is understood to be the ship. The harbor is a bit more abstract, but the safety it affords can be seen as the peace that was achieved at the end of the Civil War. Finally, the teeming crowds that cheer the ship from the shore represent the entirety of the American population. In short, each aspect of the setting has a symbolic significance that Whitman uses to mourn and celebrate Abraham Lincoln. (For more on this, check out “Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory.”)
The speaker of “O Captain! My Captain” is super-fanboy #1. He’s got all the trading cards, is president of the fan club, and even has an old piece of gum that the captain once chewed. Of course, we’re kidding here, but the point is that this speaker has a very strong connection to the captain, just as Walt Whitman felt strongly about Abraham Lincoln.
By today’s standards, such unbridled attraction to a public figure is (a) kind of common (for example) and (b) kind of creepy. We know there are people out there who get way too wrapped up in celebrities, and frankly we would cross the street if we saw these folks coming our way. (We’re looking at you, TMZ.)
Still, this speaker does not come across as the type to rifle through the captain’s garbage or try to chase him through the streets for a cheap photo. His love for the captain strikes us as genuine. More importantly, his love makes this captain seem more human. He’s not just some talking head, a leader with whom we can’t connect. He’s a person who is loved and mourned by the speaker.
In that way, the speaker’s affection is a model for us, the audience. The captain’s death is not just some abstract political event. It is a real, human tragedy that we should all be deeply affected by. The speaker’s emotional mourning is proof of that.
With the exception of some tricky words like “rack” and “keel,” the language is pretty straightforward. Although the syntax (the word order) is shifted around a bit to make the poem rhyme, Whitman wants you to focus on the subject and not get caught up in parallels to Greek myths or fancy poetic forms. If you read the poem out loud, you can’t help but find its rhythms, and the rest of the poem will follow.
While “O Captain! My Captain!” isn’t very typical of Whitman, with its use of rhyme and stricter use of meter, there are a few elements that make it unmistakably Whitman-ian. To be exact, there are three (count 'em) aspects of this poem that have Walt's fingerprints all over them.
Number one: apostrophes. No, we don't mean those punctuation marks that look like commas in zero gravity. We mean appeals to people, and other things, that aren't necessarily going to answer right back. Whitman is a big one for communication in his poems. The trouble is, that communication usually consists of his speaker appealing to a person or group of people that may or may not be listening.
For example, maybe you've seen this Levi's ad. Did ya know that the poem, "Pioneers! O Pioneers!," was one of Walt's? Well, now you do. Notice the appeal to the pioneers (you can read the text here). It should seem pretty familiar after reading "O Captain! My Captain!" Heck, even the titles are almost identical. Whitman does this kind of thing a lot in his poems. He usually announces that he's about to go off on an apostrophe with that letter O. For another example, you can check out "A Noiseless Patient Spider." There, the speaker starts off observing a spider, but it isn't long before he's off exclaiming, "O my soul," and having an animated (and one-way) chat with his own spirit.
Numero dos: "O Captain! My Captain!" has a pretty boisterous crowd in it, cheering on the safe arrival of the ship and the work that the dead captain has accomplished. Whitman really loves crowds, what with all their hub-bub and hustle-bustle and shenanigans. They are a source of fascination and energy to him. As he writes in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry": "Crowds of men and women attired in the usual costumes! how curious you are to me!" (3). Whitman is enthralled by these commuters, just as his speaker is fixated on the revelry taking place on the shore in "O Captain! My Captain!" What's so great about crowds, you ask? Well, for Whitman, the answer has to do with his third calling card…
Third Up: America—Walt was all about it. He loved it, he mourned it, he explored it, and he wrote about it from nearly every conceivable angle. This goes a long way toward explaining the sheer length of some of Whitman's poems. We mean, have you checked out "Song of Myself" lately? No? Go ahead. We've got a few hours to kill here.… Okay, you're back? Nice white beard you got there. It kind of reminds us of Whitman himself.
Seriously, though, it seems at times that Whitman is trying to document every aspect of American life in his poetry: the people, their work, the land, the history, everything. He had a cosmic streak in him, for sure, and he wrote a great deal about the soul, God, and the universe. But he was also a current affairs nut, devoting much of his attention to the goings on of his country and especially around his native New York. Having witnessed the horrors of the Civil War as a nurse to wounded soldiers, Whitman wrote extensively about this period in American history, and "O Captain! My Captain!" is just one example of that. It's not even his only poem about Lincoln's death. Check out "When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom'd" for another Whitman-ian take on this tragedy.
The poetic form of the dirge comes out of the early Christian Church when Christians would say morning prayers for, among others, the dead. But the poetic form came to mean any mournful song for the dead. (The dirge eventually evolved into a drinking song, but for our purposes that’s neither here nor there.) Whitman thought of his poems as songs, and “O Captain! My Captain!” is a piece that is closer to a song than any other written by Whitman.
Broken into three stanzas, each stanza contains a verse (in this case, these are the longer lines describing the arrival of the ship) and a chorus (here, the shorter lines describing the scene of the dead captain and the sailor that loves him). The verse sections are rhymed couplets, or two lines that finish with end rhymes and are related in their content.
Some of the couplets rhyme perfectly, like lines 1 and 2 (“done” and “won”) and lines 17 and 18 (“still” and “will”). Others like lines 9 and 10 have near, or slant, rhyme (“bells” and “trills”), meaning that the end words rhyme, but not so closely.
Why would Whitman mix up the rhymes this way? It wasn’t that he misplaced his rhyming dictionary. Remember that a dirge may be a song, but it’s a song for the dead. Sure, it may rhyme some of the time (see what we did there?), but it’s not a happy sing-a-long. It’s a sad song of remembrance, and these slant rhymes are there to remind us that it’s not all high-fives and good times going on here. The death that is the subject of the poem has upset the order of things, including the very rhymes themselves.
The last four lines in each stanza also represent a break in the pattern. They’re much shorter than the first four—about half as long, actually. Still, notice how if you treat lines 5 and 6 as one line and 7 and 8 as another line, then the rhyming couplet pattern continues throughout the entire poem. So if you were hearing the poem, you probably wouldn’t know that lines 5 through 8 were shorter than lines 1 through 4.
Visually, though, these lines of the chorus break off from the narrative, longer lines of the verses. They are shorter, choppier lines in which the speaker is introspective, reflecting on the loss of the captain. It’s as though his grief is responsible for the interrupted flow of these indented lines.
That choppiness carries over to the meter of the poem, as well. Mainly, the meter of the poem is in an iambic meter. What the heck is that? Well, an iamb is a two-syllable unit in which the first syllable doesn’t get much emphasis, but then the second one does. Say the word “belong” out loud (make sure nobody’s looking first). Notice that sound? Be-long. The second syllable gets the stress.
The same can be said for much, but not all, of this poem. Check it out:
our fear ful trip is done
Read it out loud, and you should hear da-DUM da-DUM da-DUM. That, friends, is the rhythm of the iamb. It propels you along in the poem with a purposeful beat, and can be found in the second half of lines 1, 9, and 17, as well as throughout lines 2, 10, and 18.
Notice, though, that this iambic rhythm repeats only in certain places of the poem. Each stanza is joined by keeping the same rhythmic structure, which makes sense because, after all, this is meant to evoke a song, right? Still, within each stanza there are other rhythms that compete with the iambs.
We’re talking mainly about the rare, exotic amphibrach here. Rarely seen in its natural environment, the amphibrach is a measure of rhythm that is an unstressed syllable, followed by a stressed syllable, followed by another unstressed syllable. For example, say the word “allowance” out loud. You should hear a rhythm like da-DUM-da. And you should also hear that same pattern in this poem, too. Check it:
O Captain! my Captain!
Notice how "Cap" is the only syllable that gets the stress in that phrase. Really, what Whitman’s does here is put not one, but two amphibrachs together. Right after this, we get the regular iambic pattern:
our fear ful trip is done
We also get amphibrachs at the end of lines 3, 4, 11, and 12 (check out the last three syllables of each of those lines). So, ol' Walt is mixing and matching his rhythms here. Again, why would he do that? Well, just like he varies his rhyme from perfect to slant, he’s using rhythmic variety to keep the reader on their toes. The most varied rhythmic patterns are saved for the indented chorus lines (no, not that kind of chorus line), where the speaker uses choppy lines to convey his sense of loss and grief. In short, this ain’t no sing-a-long. It’s a sad song that shifts around—both in terms of rhyme and meter—to remind the reader that there is something powerfully amiss.
Whitman’s uses the ship in “O Captain! My Captain!” to represent the voyage of the United States as a whole. We learn that this was no pleasure cruise, either. The ship stands in for the nation as it moved through the difficult times of the Civil War ("our fearful trip"), toward a peaceful solution (even if it was one not entirely agreed upon, as evidenced by Lincoln's assassination). As a result of the difficult voyage (the Civil War), the ship looks “grim and daring.” The imagery of the worn vessel parallels the condition of the people who were affected by the war. Many citizens, soldiers, and leaders suffered starvation, poverty, and anxiety over its course.
Since this poem was written to mourn the death of Lincoln, we can assume that the captain of the ship is none other than the man who was in charge. The head honcho. The big cheese. The guy who was responsible for steering the nation safely back home after the Civil War. Whitman saw Lincoln as a symbol of the average American, someone who could become a great leader from humble beginnings. Of course, the loss of President Lincoln in 1865—right after the signing of a treaty between the North and South—could have thrown the country right back into war. So Whitman writes this allegorical poem both to mourn Lincoln and to celebrate the magnitude of his accomplishments in uniting the country after conflict.
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.
The speaker and the captain have a serious bond that shouldn’t be brushed aside as simply one of respect. The speaker really seems to love this captain. This doesn’t mean that they were lovers, though. The speaker frames this more as a familial love, calling the captain "father" on more than one occasion. So, this is really more love than lust, and everybody can get down with that. It's a G-rating. Come one, come all.