The poem O Captain! My captain! is written by Walt Whitman, regarded as one of America’s greatest poets known for their artistry and exceptional skill in the written words. The poem O Captain! My captain! refers the American Civil War (1861-1865) and the death of Abraham Lincoln in 1865. He was assassinated. The poem creates a melancholy mood as its theme is the death of the 16th president of America Mr Abraham Lincoln.
Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ was published on November 4, 1865, in The Saturday Press, after Lincoln’s assassination the same year, on April 14. The poem, which is classified as an elegy or mourning poem, is an extended metaphor written on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The Captain in the poem represents the assassinated president; the ship represents the war-weathered nation following the Civil War; the ‘prize won’ represents the salvaged union. The poet, torn between relief and despair, captures America’s confusion at the end of the Civil War. It was a time of many conflicting sentiments, and he immortalises this sense of uncertainty in the poem.
The sailor in the poem addressed the Captain and at once celebrates the safe and successful return of their ship and mourns the loss of the Captain. In the first stanza, the speaker expresses his relief that the ship has reached its home port at last and describes hearing people cheering. Despite the celebrations on land and the successful voyage, the speaker reveals that his Captain’s dead body is lying on the deck. In the second stanza, the speaker implores the Captain to ‘rise up and hear the bells,’ wishing the dead man could witness the elation. Everyone adored the captain, and the speaker admits that his death feels like a horrible dream. In the final stanza, the speaker juxtaposes his feelings of mourning and pride.
O captain! – O the great President of America, Mr Abrahm Lincoln
fearful trip – terrible and dangerous journey (here it means the American Civil War 1861-1865)
weather’d – withstood, survived the tough time (कठिन समय में भी अपने आप को बनाए रखना)
rack – a cluster or group of dark clouds (here it means the dangers of war)
seek (pt. sought) – to look for, try to get or obtain or achieve
bells – ringing of bells in celebration
exulting – celebrating victory, rejoicing the success
keel – a part of underside of a boat
vessel – ship
grim – serious, formidable, severe (गंभीर, कठोर, भयानक)
daring – bold, brave and adventurous
steady – firm, fixed and unwavering (टिकाऊ एवं स्थिर ओर बना हुआ )
cold – without emotion, without human warmth
bugle trills – a short bust of notes from a trumpet, often means to signify military victory
bouquet – a bunch of flowers arranged to be gifted as present
flung – thrown in the air and waving
shores – land along the edge of the sea (here it means people of America)
sway – moving or swinging from side to side (झूलना)
mass – a large number of people
beneath – below
pulse – throbbing of the arteries (नाड़ी का स्पंदन या धड़कन)
will – mental power that controls one’s thoughts, actions and decisions (इच्छा शक्ति)
voyage – travelling by water
anchor – to hold the ship steady by fastening it (लंगर डालना)
mournful – filled with sorrow, grief and sadness
B. Answer these questions.
- O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
a. What ‘trip’ is literally and figuratively being referred to here?
b. Which ‘prize’ is being talked about here?
c. In what way was the trip ‘fearful’?
- …for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call…
a. Who is ‘you’ here?
b. Where are ‘they’?
c. Why is there a crowd?
- Exult O shores, and ring, O bells!
a. When and why does the speaker say this?
b. What ‘bells’ are being referred to here?
c. What has happened on the deck?
- a. Literally the ship has reached the harbour after the war and figuratively the victory of the Union has been achieved.
b. Figuratively, the ‘prize’ refers to the victory of the union; literally it is the victory in the battle.
c. Figuratively, it is the fear associated with the outcome of the civil war and literally it is the fear associated with victory in a battle.
- a. ‘You’ here is the captain of the ship.
b. ‘They’ refers to the general public here.
c. People have come in large numbers to welcome the captain after winning the battle.
- a. The speaker says this when the ship has returned home after victory.
b. The church bells are referred here. The speaker wants them to be rung as a welcome to the victorious captain.
c. The captain is lying dead on the deck.
B. Answer these questions.
- Describe the mixed feelings expressed in stanza 1.
- What does the speaker want the captain to hear and see in stanza 2?
- In what two ways is the voyage ‘closed and done’?
- While everyone is celebrating on the shore, what is the speaker doing?
- What do the ‘bleeding drops of red’ mean figuratively and literally?
- How does the speaker react to the whole situation?
- What does the way the speaker addresses the captain in the poem reveal about his feelings towards the captain?
- The poem ends with the refrain, ‘fallen cold and dead.’ How does this refrain contribute to the mood of the poem?
- Why do you think Whitman chose to use the symbol of a captain, a boat, and a journey at sea for this poem? What other symbols could he have used?
- Do you think all people felt the same way as the sailor at the end of the Civil War? Why might some people have felt differently?
1. The mood shown in the first stanza in the beginning is happy and cheerful. The trip is almost over and the ship is returning to port. The people are cheerful and waiting to give a grand welcome to the Captain.
The stanza changes to despair and gloomy after four lines showing the grief due to loss of the captain.
2. The speaker wants the captain to hear the bells ringing and the bugle trills and see the flag being waved, the flowers and the cheering crowds who have come to welcome the captain.
3. Firstly, it is end of the battle and secondly it is referred to as the life of the captain or the victory completed.
4. While everyone is celebrating on the shore the speaker is mourning the death of the Captain lying dead on the deck.
5. The bleeding drops of red mean all the bloodshed that happens during the battle figuratively, and literally it refers to the captain lying dead in a pool of blood on the deck.
6. The speaker is in a state of confusion whether to celebrate the victory or mourn the loss of his beloved captain. At least he clears the confusion by deciding to mourn the loss of his captain while asking the other people to keep celebrating.
7. The way the speaker addresses the captain in the poem reveals that he was greatly attached to him and had great regard for him and his abilities in leading the war. He also calls him as a fatherly figure that shows that the Captain might have played a great role in shaping his life as well.
8. The poem ends with the refrain, ‘fallen cold and dead’ and it emphasises the sombre and melancholic mood despite a great victory.
9. Whitman chooses to use the symbol of captain, a boat and a journey at sea for this poem because this aptly describes the journey of life, where joys and sorrows go hand in hand. Sacrifices are needed for victory, and in fairness of life a person responsible for victories may not enjoy them.
10. All would not have felt the same way as all would not be attached to the captain the same as the sailor was.
A. From the poem, pick out examples of:
- personification 2. transferred epithet
- Personification: ‘The ship has weathered every rack’
- Transferred epithet: fearful trip
B. Map the rhyme scheme of the poem.
Rhyme Scheme: aa bb cdec