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.
Line 1: The poem opens with an apostrophe to the captain, meaning that it begins with an address to the absent (read: dead) captain. Notice how the speaker refers to the captain as his captain. This is not just the speaker’s boss. There is a personal connection here as well.
Line 7: The captain is dead and bloodied. This description is an allusion (a reference) to the recently deceased President Lincoln, killed by a gunshot.
Line 13: The speaker also calls the captain “dear father.” The bond between the speaker and the dead man is so deep that the line is blurred between leader and family. It’s like the whole country is brought together as a family, under the leadership of this one man.
Lines 17, 18, and 23: These are fairly straightforward references to the person, but notice how the speaker is intimately connected to the dead captain with the use of the word “my” each time. This kind of language choice indicates the speaker’s intimacy with this lost leader. The captain’s death is, ultimately, not just a political loss. It’s a personal loss, too. Sad.