Study Guide

O Captain! My Captain! Quotes

  • Admiration

    O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done (1)

    In poetry, the “O” is usually used in poems that appeal to whatever follows the word. The speaker has shared experiences with the captain that allow him to take possession of the captain by using the word “my.” Also, the poet has chosen to capitalize the “C” in “captain” to make the man seem even more important, both to him and to us as readers.

    The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; (2)

    Notice how the prize is whatever you the reader want to imagine, and how everyone would be afraid of getting caught in a big storm out in the ocean, Perfect Storm-style. The dangers and goals that the captain has guided the speaker/crew through are so vague that every reader can sympathize. As a result, the captain becomes even more readily admirable.

    The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, (3)

    To exult is a high form of celebration, though the reader is not told exactly what the people are really happy about. It could be the return of the ship, the successful captain, the success in winning the prize, or D) all of the above.

    For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; (12)

    It’s important to consider whether the crowd is really cheering for the captain himself, or for the success of the mission. (Or maybe this ship is filled with discount sneakers.) Clearly, the speaker is encouraging us to see the captain as the focal point for the crowd's admiration.

    Here Captain! dear father! (13)

    With these apostrophes, the speaker encourages enthusiastic admiration from the more than just the people on the shore. It's as though the entire country should spring to life in applauding the captain.

  • Patriotism

    O Captain! my Captain! our faithful trip is done; (1)

    The way in which the speaker feels emotionally connected to the captain and the mission is representative of how patriotism is the feeling of shared values and purposes. It's one big, warm, national fuzzy.

    The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting, (3)

    The exultation of the people for the ship’s crew mirrors the patriotic feelings that the sailor feels toward them, and toward his captain. Everybody's feeling it.

    Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; (10)

    The flag is a patriotic symbol for the nation, but notice how the speaker says that the flag is “flung” or waved for the leader of the nation. The bugle is used in the military and implies that patriotism includes the willingness to fight for the common cause, under the leader's guidance.

    For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning; (12)

    The patriotic people on the shore are deeply devoted to the captain. Because they are describes as a “swaying mass” and their faces all turn at the same time, they are imagined as one patriotic body and not as a bunch of individuals (who just happen to move the same way all at the same time).

  • Suffering

    O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done; (1)

    The trip is described as “fearful,” which implies that the suffering has been more mental than physical.

    The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won; (2)

    Before the speaker knows that the captain is dead, he can accept that the suffering that was endured in the voyage was totally worth it because the mission was ultimately a success. In other words, the juice was worth the squeeze.

    While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring: (4)

    Look at the portrait of any president before and after his term in office and you can see how much the suffering that comes with great responsibility can have a physical effect on a person. White hair and wrinkles, much?

    But O heart! heart! heart! (5)

    The speaker is so overwhelmed that he can’t express the pain he’s feeling at the sight of his fallen captain. That's some serious suffering.

    This arm beneath your head; (14)

    As a nurse during the Civil War, Whitman likely held many dying men. Not fun. The pain he must have experienced in such a moment really makes this image—the dead captain in the sailor’s arms—the climax of the poem.

    It is some dream that on the deck (15)

    Again, the sailor cannot face the reality of the captain’s death. The suffering is unreal, in a way.

    But I, with mournful tread, (22)

    The sailor seems to be completely alone here. What has happened to the rest of the crew? This isolation seems to make his suffering all the more intense. Poor guy.

  • Men and Masculinity

    But O heart! heart! heart! (5)

    The speaker does a literary double-dip here. He uses the heart in both an apostrophe and a synecdoche to communicate the emotional bonds he feels for the captain.

    Here Captain! dear father! (13)

    The words “dear father” communicate a positive emotional bond with the captain (as opposed to "I hate you, Dad!"). The captain is a positive father-figure and we see male-bonding at its most successful.

    This arm beneath your head; (14)

    The intimacy of nursing isn’t thought of as masculine in our current culture, but in Whitman’s culture, almost all nurses were in fact men. For real. You can read Whitman’s about emotional bonds with wounded and dying soldiers in his Memoranda During the War.

    My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still; (17)

    It's interesting that the speaker pays attention to the captain's lips in this moment. Do you think that's a natural place to focus on? After all, still, pale lips are a pretty good sign of death. Or does this suggest something more than platonic male bonding on the part of the speaker?

    My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse or will; (18)

    Although the captain isn’t actually the speaker’s father (as far as we know), the relationship between the father and the son may be the most precious and desired bond for Whitman. The fact that death interrupts this bond is really just a terrific bummer.