O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! My Captain!
Walt Whitman 1865
Written on the occasion Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, “O Captain! My Captain!” was first published in the New York Saturday Press (November 1865) and was later included, along with “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” in a group of poems titled “Sequel” to Drum Taps (1865). While “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” has become one of Whitman’s most critically acclaimed poems, “O Captain! My Captain!,” which incorporates more conventional rhyme and meter, was by far the most popular of Whitman’s poems during his lifetime.
“O Captain! My Captain!” became an instant classic, and children were taught to recite its verses in school. Yet Whitman thought the praise the poem garnered was unwarranted. He is noted to have said: “I’m almost sorry I ever wrote that poem.... I say that if I’d written a whole volume of My Captains I’d deserve to be spanked and sent to bed with the world’s compliments—which would be generous treatment, considering what a lame duck book such a book would have been!” At the heart of this statement is Whitman’s recognition that the reading audience of his day still preferred conventionally rhymed and metered poems over more experimental free-verse forms that he himself favored. Nevertheless, “O Captain! My Captain!” does attest to Whitman’s versatility as a poet. While engaging fixed patterns of rhyme and meter, the poem manages to communicate Whitman’s heroic vision of Lincoln, the great Union leader of the Civil War, as well as the horror, shock,
and dismay Whitman felt at learning of Lincoln’s assassination.
The fallen Captain of the poem is an allusion to Abraham Lincoln, and the ship is a metaphor for the ship of state, or more precisely, the United States of America. The speaker’s difficulty in coming to grips with the death of his Captain is the subject of the poem. While he knows his Captain is dead, he hopes that he is dreaming, that he is somehow mistaken. However, the last line, in repeating the refrain “Fallen cold and dead,” lends a sense of finality to the poem and leaves no doubt in the reader’s mind. The Captain (Lincoln), the speaker’s father figure and leader, is indeed dead, and what should have been a time of great rejoicing at the end of the Civil War has been turned into a time of national grief and mourning.
The second of nine children, Whitman was born in 1819 on Long Island, New York, to Quaker parents. In 1823 the Whitmans moved to Brooklyn, where Whitman attended public school. At age eleven he left school to work as an office boy in a law office and then as a typesetter’s apprentice at a number of print shops. Although his family moved back to Long Island in 1834, Whitman stayed in Brooklyn and then New York City to become a compositor. Unable to find work, he rejoined his family on Long Island in 1836 and taught at several schools. In addition to teaching, Whitman started his own newspaper, the Long Islander. He subsequently edited numerous papers for short periods over the next fourteen years, including the New York Aurora and the Brooklyn Eagle, and published poems and short stories in various periodicals.
Whitman did little in terms of employment from the 1850 to 1855. Instead, he focused on his own work, writing and printing the first edition of his collection of poems Leaves of Grass. Over the next few years, Whitman continued to write and briefly returned to journalism. During the American Civil War he tended wounded soldiers in army hospitals in Washington, D.C., while working as a copyist in the army paymaster’s office. Following the war Whitman worked for the Department of the Interior and then as a clerk at the Justice Department. He remained in this position until he suffered a paralytic stroke in 1873. Although he lived nearly twenty more years and published four more editions of Leaves of Grass, Whitman produced little significant new work following his stroke. He died in Camden, New Jersey, at age 72.
O Captain! my Captain, our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we
sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you
the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager
Here Captain! dear father!
The arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage
closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
The first lines of the poem serve to begin the controlling metaphor upon which the rest of the poem builds. A metaphor is simply a figure of speech in which one thing is substituted for another, and a controlling metaphor is a metaphor that impacts, controls, or unifies the entire poem. In this poem, the “Captain” is a substitute for Abraham Lincoln, and the “ship” is the United States of America. “The fearful trip” is the Civil War, which had ended just prior to Lincoln’s assassination. Thus the ship is returning home to cheering crowds having won “the prize” of victory, just as the Union, led by Lincoln, had returned victorious from the Civil War. The utterance “O Captain! my Captain” is particularly interesting in this light. In one sense the speaker is addressing his Captain directly, but in another respect he seems to be speaking to himself about his Captain. The repetition helps to assert the uncertainty he feels at the Captain’s loss.
Lines 5-8 communicate the unpleasant news that the Captain has somehow fallen dead after the battle. More importantly, the repetition of “heart! heart! heart!” communicates the speaker of the poem’s dismay and horror at realizing that his Captain has died. The poem is then as much about the “I” of the poem and how he comes to terms with his grief, how he processes this information, as it is about the central figure of the Captain. The “bleeding drops of red” are both the Captain’s bleeding wounds and the speakers wounded heart. Finally, these lines function as a broken heroic couplet, a two-line rhymed verse that originated in heroic epic poetry and is usually, as is the case with these lines, written in iambic pentameter. The broken lines are called hemistiches and are commonly used, as they are here, to the underlying rhythm of the poem and to suggest emotional upheaval.
- An audio cassette titled “Dickinson and Whitman: Ebb and Flow,” read by Nancy Wickwire and Alexander Scourby, is available from Audiobooks.
- Go Directly to Creation, by Walt Whitman, is available on audio cassette from Audiobooks.
- Walt Whitman, a biography on video cassette in the Poetry by Americans Series, is available from AIMS Media.
- A biography titled Walt Whitman is available on video cassette from Films for the Humanities & Sciences.
- Part of the Voices and Visions Series, Volume 1, a video cassette titled Walt Whitman is available from Mystic Fire Video.
- Walt Whitman & the Civil War has been released on video cassette by Video Knowledge, Inc.
- Walt Whitman: Poetry for a New Age is available on video cassette from Encyclopaedia Britannica Education Corp.
In this pivotal second stanza, the speaker of the poem entreats his Captain to “Rise up and hear the bells.” In essence the speaker laments that his Captain, having led his crew bravely to victory, will not receive the fanfare that is his just due. At the same time Whitman blends two distinct scenes: one in which crowds gather to receive and celebrate the Captain (Lincoln) upon his return from military victory; and the second in which people gather to lament him as a fallen hero.
The bells of the second stanza are presumably the bells rung in celebration of military victory; however, knowing the great Captain and leader has died the bells might also symbolize funeral bells tolled in mourning. Similarly, the “flag,” is flown in honor of the Captain both as a symbol of rejoicing and victory and as a symbol of lamentation—as in the tradition of flying the American flag at half-mast when a respected American dies. The bugle, a quintessentially military musical instrument, alludes to both military victory and to “Taps,” the requiem traditionally played at funerals of fallen soldiers. Bouquets and wreathes are also common to both celebratory receptions and funerals. Finally, the throngs of people become symbolic as well. Not only are they representative of the people who welcomed and rejoiced at the Union’s victory in the Civil War, but they represent the throngs of people who gathered across the nation to mournfully view Lincoln’s coffin as it was taken by train from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Illinois. The crowds remind the reader that the speaker of the poem is not alone in lamenting his Captain’s death, but rather shares this experience with the masses. In this manner the poem is in keeping with Whitman’s experience. While he himself had a powerful personal reaction to the news of Lincoln’s death, Lincoln was the Captain and father-figure of an entire nation and so the poet’s grief, while central to the poem, is shared by the rest of the country.
In the next group of lines, the speaker of the poem again entreats his Captain to “hear.” In this case he may be referring to the bells of the first stanza, or perhaps to himself, his pleas. More importantly, the speaker for the first time calls his Captain “father.” In this manner, Whitman expands the metaphor for Lincoln beyond the more limited scope of a military leader of men into a father figure, one whose wisdom and teachings led his children into adulthood. The poem celebrates Lincoln as more than simply a great military leader who led the Union to victory during the Civil War and attaches to him a broader significance as the father of this new, post-slavery country.
In Lines 15-16 the speaker asserts that this must all be a bad dream. Here the poem captures the speaker’s denial; the emotional impact of Lincoln’s demise has made it almost impossible for the speaker to accept. The refrain “fallen cold and dead,” is slightly altered in this stanza in that it is apparently addressed to the Captain. The effect is to again reinforce the speaker’s difficulty in coming to terms with his Captain’s death; even though his Captain is dead, the speaker continues to speak to him as though he were alive.
The speaker of the poem, no longer able to hold out hope, faces up to the reality of his Captain’s death. The details and images evoked in these lines all serve to reiterate that the Captain is deceased: his pallid lips, lack of a pulse, and lack of will. Unlike me two previous stanzas, the speaker in no way addresses his Captain directly but speaks of him entirely in the third-person. In this sense, he has finally accepted that his Captain is dead.
Having finally faced up to his Captain’s death, the speaker then turns his attention back to the recent victory. Lines 19-24 suggest again the internal division suffered by the speaker of the poem. Having accepted that his Captain is indeed dead it would seem he can now return his attention to the military victory. After all, one could surely argue that the plight of an entire nation of people far outweighs the fate of a single man. Nevertheless, the speaker of the poem chooses the individual over the larger nation. While “Exult O shores, and ring O bells” is explicitly a call for rejoicing, the speaker himself will not celebrate but will walk “with mournful tread,” knowing that his Captain is indeed “Fallen cold and dead.” The speaker thus celebrates the end of the Civil War but continues to express his need to mourn his fallen hero.
A startling aspect of this poem is that the speaker shows such commitment to his fallen leader, referring to him as “my Captain” and even “my father.” The death, as a matter of fact, is sufficiently striking that it balances out the victory that is portrayed here as a voyage so successful that crowds eagerly cheer as the ship docks. As a tribute to President Lincoln, a man whom Whitman never met once in his life, this poem shows more fierce loyalty than could even be expected from actual ship’s crews or actual sons; it is a loyalty that does show itself sometimes in political followers. Whitman was politically involved, which was a part of his passion for life, and his enthusiasm was particularly sparked by Lincoln, who represented all that he thought a president should be. As early as 1855, in his essay “The Eighteenth Presidency,” Whitman showed outright, bitter disgust with the quality of men who had been holding the highest office in the land. In that essay he asks, “Where is the spirit of manliness and common sense of These States? It does not appear in the government. It does not appear at all in the Presidency.” At times in that essay, Whitman’s anger and talent for metaphor took him beyond the spirit of analysis, down near a level of name-calling: “The President,” he wrote, expressing dismay at Franklin Pierce’s policies of appeasing slave owners, “eats dirt and excrement for his daily meals, likes it, and tries to force it on The State.” It is hardly surprising that Whitman would feel, when Lincoln was elected in 1860, that at last someone who shared his spirit, courage, and love of democracy had finally arrived. The sort of loyalty described in this poem does not come from observing the world passively: it grows out of dealing with one disappointment after another and finally finding one’s ideal turned into reality.
Coming of Age
However the speaker of this poem is imagined—as a crew member, a son, or as Whitman himself—it is hard to miss the sense of shock felt and conveyed not only in his words but in several techniques Whitman uses. One is the free scattering of exclamation points throughout the poem; also, there is in an early line, “O heart! heart! heart!” which indicates an inability to express more than a single blurted word; another factor is the way the poem returns frequently to mentioning the dead body, as if the speaker is trying to force himself to believe it. When this is contrasted with the great success of the voyage, introduced early in the poem, the death is made even more shocking. More pressing than the irony or the pity of death at the moment of success is that the speaker is thinking about himself and what the future will hold for him. Not only do the personal references to “my Captain, my father” convey a sense of personal loss, but the self-consciousness of his actions in the poem’s last three lines shows loneliness and apprehension. The speaker, who has survived due to the Captain’s guidance, is left to fend for himself now, and he seems unsure that he will be capable. This is the situation that coming of age stories typically focus on: youths who are forced by circumstances to make their own decisions. From every indication, there are no specific problems in this speaker’s near future. The perils of the actual or symbolic ocean voyage are past, and “the people are exulting.” It is a measure of how unprepared, even immature, this speaker feels that he fears losing the Captain even when the danger is over. He has no choice, though. He can no longer take orders and no longer has a
Topics for Further Study
- Write an episode from a time when the Captain was still alive. What is the “prize” mentioned in line 1? Include conversation between the Captain and this poem’s speaker.
- This poem was written to memorialize President Abraham Lincoln upon his death. Pick a famous figure from the news who has died and write a scene containing you and that person in a symbolic situation.
- Explain how you think the speaker of this poem feels to have lost his Captain. Why does he feel this way? How do you know?
parent figure whose judgement he can trust. He has to be responsible for himself.
Death in this poem is abrupt and unexpected—a matter of being here one moment and gone the next. It is senseless. The poem implies that if the universe were just, the Captain who has triumphantly lead this ship to safety would at least be able to enjoy the crowd’s praise, but death has made that impossible. In this poem, unlike many war poems, there is no glory in death; there is no reward mentioned for a job well done on earth; the speaker makes no plans to carry on in the name of the Captain: those ideas generally come up later, once the shock of death has worn off. Whitman emphasizes the finality of death with his use of the words “fallen cold and dead,” which not only stress a sudden lack of mobility and lack of heat, but also, in the tone of the last three, one-syllable words, makes the reader “hear” a corpse’s thudding lifelessness.
“O Captain! My Captain!” is essentially a threnody, a lament for the dead. It is written in heroic couplets—the last two of each stanza being broken into four lines—that incorporate conventional meter and end rhyme. Also, the refrain of the poem serves to heighten the sense of horror and disbelief felt by the speaker upon discovering his leader and surrogate father has died.
Heroic couplets are characterized as two-line verses that consist primarily of iambic meter and incorporate a fixed (aabb) rhyme scheme. “Iambic” refers to the fact that the poem consists primarily of iambic feet—segments of two syllables, the first unstressed and the second stressed. For example the line below is written entirely in iambs:
Where on / the deck / my Cap / tain lies ...
However, the second half of the above line (or what would be a line if the couplet were not broken apart into what are called hemistiches) is made up of trochaic feet: segments of two syllables in which the first syllable is stressed and the second is unstressed. In addition, a single extra stressed syllable is added to the end of the line to give it a rising rhythm.
Fal len / cold and / dead.
In breaking up the final couplet of each stanza and diversifying the meter of the poem in this manner, Whitman is simply taking liberties with the heroic stanza form. Variations in rhythm add an element of surprise for the reader but also serve to create a tension in the poem that could not have been attained had the poet used only iambic meter.
Rhyme, of course, refers to repetitions of similar sounds as in “sharp/harp” and “riddle/middle.” When a poem incorporates a consistent pattern of rhyme, it is said to have a fixed rhyme scheme. End-line rhyme is a scheme in which rhymes are consistently positioned at the ends of lines. In “O Captain! My Captain!,” the rhyme scheme of the poem can be depicted as: aabbxcxc. The end-rhymed words are (a) done / (a) won;(b) exulting / (b) daring; and (c) red / (c) dead. The unrhymed words denoted by x’s, are (x) heart /(x) lies.
End rhyme is perhaps the most traditional of poetic tools and serves to unify rhythm and add a sense of musicality to a poem. It also succeeds in emphasizing important words by giving them extra attention and making them stand out in the reader’s mind. While end-line rhyme was once synonymous with poetry, developments in free verse and blank verse have largely come into favor and end-line rhyme poetry is thought by many to be overly conventional and restrictive. Nevertheless, end rhyme has its roots in the oral tradition of poetry, when poems with such a rhyme scheme were more easily memorized and handed down from generation to generation.
A refrain is a line or partial line of verse that is repeated in a poem. In “O Captain! My Captain!,” the refrain “Fallen cold and dead” reiterates the meaning of the poem and builds tension. The first occurrence of this line simply sets the scene, but with the repetition of the same line in the second stanza, a different quality is communicated. The reader becomes aware that the speaker is trying to accept his Captain’s death. There is a sense of disbelief and uncertainty, and more importantly, a feeling that the speaker is still holding out hope that his Captain is not actually dead and that he might “rise up.” The last refrain then heightens the sense of desperation in the poem and simultaneously gives a sense of finality. With the close of the poem the reader knows definitively that the Captain is indeed dead and that this has not all been a bad dream.
This poem was written as a memorial to president Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated five days after the Confederacy surrendered to the Union at Appomattox. It was published in Whitman’s book Drum-taps and Sequel in 1865, which later was added to the fourth edition of the book Leaves of Grass in 1868. Before the Civil War, Whitman had written and edited news articles for several newspapers. His best-known works before 1855 were short stories and poems that had popular themes, such as patriotism and the evils of drinking: they were not very well written or meaningful, and they would certainly not be remembered today if not for his later work. It was with the publication of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855 that Whitman gained respect as a serious artist. During the Civil War he spent most of his time as a volunteer nurse in a war hospital in Washington D.C. and as a part-time clerk in the army paymaster’s office. In January of 1865 he was appointed clerk in the U.S. Department of the Interior, and soon after that he attended President Lincoln’s second inauguration. Whitman was fired from the Department of the Interior on June 30 for being an “obscene poet,” due to the sexual content of some of the poems in Leaves of Grass, but friends and admirers arranged a job for him the very next day in the Attorney General’s office.
When Abraham Lincoln was first inaugurated President of the United States on March 4, 1861, America was straining from divisions that had existed
Compare & Contrast
- 1865: President Lincoln was the first president to be killed by an assassin’s bullet.
1963: President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.
1975: Two attempts were made on President Ford’s life.
1983: A gunman shot President Reagan and an aide.
Today: The President of the United States seldom appears in public without thorough coverage and security checks by the Secret Service.
- 1865: As the post-Civil War country starts to build its own identity, book sales rose to the point where writers would support themselves with royalties alone.
1920s: Many of America’s best writers, collectively known as “The Lost Generation,” went to live in Europe, specifically Paris, because of a favorable exchange rate and more open social philosophy.
Today: Some popular writers can make millions writing suspense or horror stories, but almost all writers of serious literature support themselves by teaching.
- 1868: President Andrew Johnson, who succeeded Lincoln, was the only president in U.S. history to be impeached by the House of Representatives for failing to uphold the law.
1974: Days before Congress voted on his impeachment, President Nixon resigned from the presidency.
1990: Testifying about illegal arms sales and transfers of profits during his administration, President Reagan responded to 130 questions with “I don’t remember” or “I don’t recall.”
- 1865: One of the Civil War’s innovations in weaponry was the Gattling gun, the world’s first repeating gun, able to fire five hundred bullets per minute.
Today: Automatic weapons that fit in a coat pocket and fire 30 shots per second are illegal but readily available in the United States.
even before the Constitution had made it a free nation. The economy of the southern states was based on agricultural products grown on huge farms—plantations—that used black slave laborers purchased from Africa. The North, which had less flat farmable land and a greater concentration of people, had an economic base that was mainly industrial, with a few small farms that could be tended by hired hands. Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, the Abolitionist movement (the movement to abolish, or eliminate, slavery) gained support in the North, while the South supported slavery. The issue was debated often in the politics of the day: as new states were admitted to the United States, each side fought for it to be a free state or a slave state. Lincoln was an anti-slavery Republican candidate, and his election was taken by southern land owners to mean that slavery was likely to be abolished. Before he was even sworn in as president, Lincoln received death threats.
On February 4, 1861, delegates from the southern states that had seceded (withdrawn membership from the United States) in the last few weeks gathered and formed a new government, the Confederate States of America. War broke out between the Union and the Confederacy on April 12th, with an attack by Confederate forces on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina. President Lincoln refused to accept the South’s secession and called for the Northern states to fight against the Confederacy in order to keep America as one country. In 1862 he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared slavery illegal in the United States: to the states that had quit the Union, this
had no direct effect except as a direct insult. By the end of the war, though, when the Confederate Army was destroyed, the plantations were ruined by battle, and the economy of the southern states was devastated, the South had no choice but to accept the end of slavery. The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865, when the commander of the Confederate Army, Robert E. Lee, surrendered to the commander of the Union Army, Ulysses S. Grant.
Five days later, on Good Friday (the Christian day of mourning for the death of Jesus), President Lincoln attended Ford’s Theater on Washington to see a play—a comedy called Our American Cousin. He and his wife and their friends were in a private theater box, above the side of the stage. At one point, when the audience’s laughter was loud enough to cover the sound of the door opening, John Wilkes Booth sneaked into the box and shot the President in the head, and then jumped from the balcony onto the stage, breaking his leg. Booth was a well-known, successful actor of the time. Lincoln was taken to a rooming house across the street, where he died the next morning. Booth was hunted down and killed at the farmhouse where he was found hiding. It was later found out that while Booth was shooting the President, a friend of his had forced his way into the house of the Secretary of State and attacked him with a knife, and that yet another associate had gone to shoot the Secretary of War but had backed out.
The critical reaction to “O Captain! My Captain!,” has been widely mixed. When first published, it was so broadly read and accepted that it became an instant classic, but as time has passed it has become less and less lauded by literary critics. Donald Hall in his essay “The Invisible World” goes so far as to call it a “ghastly lyric,” while Robert Creeley admitted in his “Introduction to Whitman Selected” that he was “embarrassed” that his “grandmother could recite that terrible poem.” In part, of course, such reactions have more to do with fashion than with the quality of the poem. However, for Whitman admirers, this poem is somewhat of an anomaly in that its traditional meter and rhyme scheme constitute a poetic step backward from the many advances Whitman offered to the world of American poetry.
One explanation for Whitman’s poetic back-pedaling is given by Ezra Greenspan in his book Walt Whitman and the American Reader. Greenspan suggests that “O Captain! My Captain!,” simply proves that Whitman “knew very well how to please conventional taste.” Read in this manner, “O Captain! My Captain!,” is then a deliberate attempt on Whitman’s part to reach a wider audience for his views on the important historical moment that is the subject of the poem.
On the other hand, Betsy Erkkila, in her book Whitman the Political Poet (1989), argues that the poem’s “formal regularity ... is a further sign of the artistic control that Whitman had to exercise in order to ’cover over’ the sense of ’horror, fever, uncertainty, alarm in the public’ aroused by Lincoln’s assassination.” In other words, the speaker of the poem is obviously distraught, but the controlled form of the poem hides this impulse. Similarly, while “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” deals rather directly with Lincoln’s death, “O Captain! My Captain!,” distances itself from its subject matter by couching it within the poem’s controlling metaphor. As Erkkila puts it, “Speaking in the voice of the civil servant, the poet refuses really to engage the feelings unleashed by Lincoln’s violent death.... Through the rigid deployment of rhyme, meter, refrain and regularly patterned stanzas, Whitman keeps Lincoln’s death distant, contained, and safe, as he memorializes the president in his more public and legendary dimension as the martyr of the cause of national union.”
Jhan Hochman is a freelance writer and currently teaches at Portland Community College, Portland, OR. In the following essay, Hochman explains Whitman’s admiration for President Lincoln and points out that Whitman linked his name in history with Lincoln by writing “O Captain! My Captain!”
“O Captain! My Captain!” is one of four poems in “Memories of President Lincoln,” a section of Walt Whitman’s ever-changing and expanding compendium of poems, Leaves of Grass. The poem is preceded by the long and more frequently anthologized poem on Lincoln’s funeral procession, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” and followed by “Hush’d Be the Camps Today,” which is based on a story of how news of Lincoln’s assassination silenced a battalion of marching soldiers dead in their tracks. The last of the four, “This Dust Was Once a Man,” is a four-line tribute to the accomplishments of the sixteenth President. With a mostly regular rhyme scheme (aabbcded), iambic rhythm of unaccented and accented syllables, and regular stanzaic shape, “O Captain! My Captain!” was a departure into tradition for Whitman, whose verse was mainly free verse devoid of regular meter, rhyme, and stanzas. This deviation would cause the poet problems because “O Captain! My Captain!” became one of his most popular poems: “If Walt Whitman had written a volume of My Captains,” wrote a contemporary critic, “instead of filling a scrapbasket with waste and calling it a book the world would be better off today and Walt Whitman would have some excuse for living.” This sentiment irritated Whitman; his free verse had been written for the “common man,” someone he thought uninterested in or unacquainted with poetic craft. Whitman remarked, “I’m honest when I say, damn My Captain and all the My Captains in my book! ... I’m almost sorry I ever wrote that poem .... I say that if I’d written a whole volume of My Captains I’d deserve to be spanked and sent to bed with the world’s compliments—which would be generous treatment, considering what a lame duck book such a book would have been!”
The captain in Whitman’s poem is President Abraham Lincoln (president from 1861-65) whom he thought resembled, among other things, a sea captain. Assassinated the year “O Captain! My Captain!” was written, Lincoln was loved and admired by Whitman most importantly because both were Unionists singlemindedly bent on keeping the states united against anyone they thought would tear them apart, especially pro-slavery Secessionists or anti-slavery Abolitionists. In the minds of Lincoln and Whitman, the “ship of state,” the Union, must withstand—even at severe cost of life, liberty, and limb—the storm or “rack” (line 2) of the Civil War. Whitman had written of Lincoln: “UNIONISM, in its truest and amplest sense, formed the hardpan of his character.” The ship of state did, of course, hold and sail into the Union “port,” but at the cost of even Lincoln himself, who was shot on April 14, 1865, by a Secessionist five days after the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox. The surrender, the viability of the Union, and the end of slavery are all part and parcel of the “prize we sought” (line 2) and the “object won” (line 20).
Whitman was struck by the fact Lincoln was shot in a theater. For Whitman, the Civil War—he called it the Secession War and the Union War—was a storm that blasted not only the ship of state, but also the world-historical stage. Here was Lincoln, to Whitman one of the greatest actors on life’s stage, shot in a theater by John Wilkes Booth, a famous
What Do I Read Next?
- Carl Sandburg’s three-volume set on the life of Lincoln, shows almost as much sentimental fondness for the president as does Whitman, but the greater amount of detail tones down his praise. Still, this book is more about building a myth than about recording history, and it does its job beautifully. The three books, Lincoln Grows Up, The Prairie Years, and The War Years, were originally published in 1939 and 1940, but they have since been reprinted in various editions.
- There are many compilations of Whitman’s writings. One with a great overall vision is The Portable Walt Whitman, edited by poet Mark van Doren. The most recent copyright date is 1977.
- A very recent collection of Whitman’s writings gathered by subject matter is Memories of President Lincoln, published in 1996 by Random House. A few years earlier, in 1990, Applewood did a similar thing with a collection called Memoranda During the War.
- Gore Vidal’s book Lincoln, published in 1984, puts a more modern, skeptical spin on the familiar legend of the president and provides the modern reader with lively writing but much less first-hand emotion.
- Lincoln was himself one of our most intelligent and literate presidents: his Gettysburg Address, for example, is studied in English classes as an example of rich prose. Lincoln’s journals, speeches, and letters have been published in many different books, with the most important collected in the Library of America editions.
- One of the most important recent biographies of Walt Whitman was 1992’s From Noon to Starry Night by Philip Callow. Callow’s ninth chapter, “Lilac and the Star Bird,” focuses particularly on Whitman’s activities during the Lincoln years.
- Practically every poet born after him has been affected by Whitman’s poetry. One poet who often mentioned his debt to Whitman was Allen Ginsberg, whose literary culture, the Beat poets, stressed freedom and spontaneity, the way Whitman did. Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” from Howl and Other Poems (1956) is nearly as influential on the world of poetry as Leaves of Grass.
actor Whitman detested for overacting. Was not Booth now overreacting by shooting the President, leaping onto a theater stage, catching his leg in and tearing down a Union flag, and speaking the lines Sic semper tyrannis (“Thus it shall always be for tyrants”)? “Deck,” mentioned three times in the same position of each stanza (lines 7, 15, 22) bears resemblance to this theater stage; the only difference between Booth and the shipmate of “O Captain! My Captain!” is that in the poem, the highly dramatic speaker is not an assassin, but a helpmate crying out while trying to bring the President back to life. It is as if the speaker in the poem had rushed on stage after Booth left it.
English novelist D. H. Lawrence noticed that the “I” of Whitman’s poetry, perhaps most notably in “Song of Myself,” merged not just poet and person but, through a kind of sympathy, attempted to merge poet with the world: with nature, the city, both sexes, the masses. Lawrence associates such mergence with death of a self: “Oh Walter, Walter, what have you done with it? What have you done with yourself? With your own individual self? For it sounds as if it had all leaked out of you, leaked into the universe.” Lawrence even wondered whether Whitman ever had a self to begin with. Remarking on Whitman’s strategy of sympathy, Lawrence called Whitman’s poetry, “post mortem effects,” that is, a dying of the self as Whitman tries to merge with the exterior world. This attempt at union is not only associable with Whitman’s Unionist sympathies, but with his subtle and perhaps sexually sublimated merging with Lincoln (“ONE IDENTITY! ONE IDENTITY!” as Lawrence characterizes Whitman’s call). Now and then when Whitman lived in Washington D.C. he would see the “Captain” riding in his carriage, and, said Whitman, “We have got so that we exchange bows, and very cordial ones.” Whitman claimed that Lincoln looked at him once, “and his look, though abstracted, happened to be directed steadily in my eye.” Whitman asserted that he saw something there no portraitist had ever seen, and that he, Whitman, was the only “portraitist” (Whitman gave several speeches about Lincoln) to have seen it. While not the totalizing, world-merging “I” Lawrence notices in poems like “Song of Myself,” Whitman, with his proximity and attachment to Lincoln, becomes a privileged “I” (and eye), not only with his remark above, but as sole witness to the death of Lincoln in “O Captain! My Captain!” The transition, from a totalizing self that attempts to merge with the world to a privileged self, came about because Whitman realized that Lincoln, with his presidency and dying, did for the country what Whitman had wanted all along to do with his poetry: maintain the Union. Lincoln accomplished this, however, not with rousing poems but with presidential acts and proclamations and with the supreme sacrifice that also served to unite the country. Having realized Lincoln’s success, Whitman would have to demote himself, not quite to the level of the common man—of the masses cheering on the shore in “O Captain! My Captain!”—but to the privileged “I” somewhere between redeemer and common man. The new Whitman becomes the speaker of “O Captain! My Captain!” a kind of priest/poet who will serve the people, the crowd, and the Union by conveying to them the full meaning of the Captain’s death. Because the Captain can no longer feel the shipmate’s arm (line 10) and has been obliterated in Lincoln’s dead senses, the helpmate, who is also Whitman, poet, and priest, must now rise to the occasion before him: because the helpmate knows he will have to make the crowd understand, he begins to anxiously “walk with mournful tread”—in other words, to pace the deck. He might finally get to preserve the Union by using the great President as the subject of poetry.
During the Civil War, Whitman nursed wounded soldiers in Washington D.C. and was critical of the way nurses were taught to resist becoming personally involved with their patients; he thought, against such teaching, that personal encouragement and care were themselves healers. The poet of “O Captain! My Captain!” attempts to bring the dead leader back to life by cradling the captain’s head in the crook of his arm and encouraging the corpse to stand up by telling him of the crowds cheering for him. A nurse to wounded bodies often connected to wounded souls, Whitman is known as a poet of both body and soul—a writer who believed the body was not to be denigrated at the expense of glorifying the soul. In “O Captain! My Captain!” the dead body is described by Whitman in some detail: “the bleeding drops of red”; pale, still lips; no pulse, and the final prognosis, “cold and dead,” repeated three times at the potent end of each stanza. This is then contrasted with the ignorantly wild, very alive, cheering crowds. Compare Whitman’s juxtaposition with the Catholic glorification of Christ’s wounded and tortured body amongst the hordes of insensitive and ignorant crucifixion watchers who “know not what they do.” Stress is put on the idea that Lincoln was a man who died in the name of (the) Union, just as Christ died for the sake of humanity’s eventual union with God. Who, then, will be the one to make the world understand that Lincoln was a deliverer? The shipmate, of course, heretofore poet, priest, and Whitman himself and now Lincoln’s apostle, is not only the sole person in this poem who knows the Captain is dead, but is also the one who understands that the Captain will “rise” after death by becoming elevated by historians to the status of deliverer of the Union, our greatest President. Recall that this apostle, who is Whitman himself, is the only man he thought could draw Lincoln’s portrait while Lincoln was still alive. Now Whitman becomes the lone soul who seems fully to understand that this dead Captain will indeed rise to the level of greatness: he reaffirms the crowd’s joyous response to the live Lincoln by exclaiming, “Exult O shores, and ring O bells!” (line 21) and transforming it into a celebration worthy of a memorial in which Lincoln’s achievements have overshadowed his murder.
As the kind of nurse-poet who attempts to merge not only with his patients but with the world, Whitman might be expected to attempt to merge with Lincoln, even the lifeless Lincoln. But this would mean merging with death. While a nurse, Whitman respected soldiers’ “meeting their death with steady composure, and often with curious readiness,” but he could not, if he had indeed tried, merge with them or with death—he was too vital. The most he could do was see that what he had written in “Song of Myself,” that it was just as lucky to die as be born, was likely true. The inability of the living—even the all-living Whitman—to merge with the dead, probably humbled Whitman. As much as it is a horror, death is a kind of privilege to which the living have no access, and
“I’m honest when I say, damn My Captain and all the My Captains in my book ...I’m almost sorry I ever wrote that poem... I say that if I’d written a whole volume of My Captains I’d deserve to be spanked and sent to bed with the world’s compliments—which would be generous treatment, considering what a lame duck book such a book would have been!”
a privilege for which Whitman likely envied Lincoln. Death is a place only the dead can go, and Whitman, whose arm in the poem was as if nonexistent to the dead Lincoln, was shut out from merging with both Lincoln and death. He was, himself, dead to death. But the humbled countenance was not to stick to a poet who fashioned himself as big as America itself. As if in overcompensation for his smallness before death and the greatest of Presidents (a President who had done everything Whitman had wanted to do with his poems), the poet becomes the privileged being who truly understands both Lincoln and the meaning of his life. While Lincoln was alive, Whitman had already fancied himself connected to the essential, living Lincoln. With “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman links his name with Lincoln’s in immortality; he remains alive to history not only through his epic poetry of self, but through the death of the President whose greatness he would both identify with and envy.
Source: Jhan Hochman, in an essay for Poetry for Students, Gale, 1997.
Erkkila examines the poems written in response to Lincoln’s assassination, and mentions scathing criticism of “O Captain! My Captain!”
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]
Source: Betsy Erkkila “Burying President Lincoln,” in Whitman the Political Poet, Oxford University Press, 1989 pp. 237-29.
William Michael Rossetti
In the following excerpt, Rossetti defends Whitman’s poetry.
The name and works of the American poet, Walt Whitman, are not exactly familiar in this country, but they have pretty often been made the occasion for slashing diatribes. As yet he belongs to that less successful class of prophets who find little honor in his own country and almost none elsewhere. We believe that this is not destined to be the ultimate condition of the case; but that, on the contrary, very extensive and very prominent fame to Mr. Whitman is in prospect, and even inevitable.
He has this year republished at New York the whole of his poems, consisting of Leaves of Grass (the two former parts fused together, with a third mostly new in addition, bearing the separate headings of “Songs before Parting”), and the “Drum Taps” with its “Sequel.” Various improvements in detail might be traced out by comparing this edition with its precursors. Mr. Whitman intimates that he regards his work as a writer as being now complete, or nearly so; it is neither very extensive nor inconsiderable in bulk. We have seen it stated, however, that he contemplates adding some poems expressive of the religious element in human nature. His poems are always (with only two exceptions, we believe—in the compositions named “Broad Axe,” and “Oh Captain, my Captain”) written without rhyme, in rolling, rhapsodic, metrical, or semi-metrical prose-verse of very irregular lengths. Parts, indeed, are properly prose, and rather to be considered as a suggestive adaptation, for epic-rhapsodic ends, of that system of inter-texture of prose with verse of which Shakespeare is the supreme model in drama. What Englishmen term “blank verse” is termed by Italians “versi sciolti”—i.e., verses unconfined by any trammels of rhyme. The same name might, with great propriety, be applied to Whitman’s verses. They are absolutely unconfined by all or any of the rhythmical system of expedients; and yet there is so powerful a rhythmical sense throughout—such an electric shock (as we might call it) of rhythm running from writer to reader—that only a very restricted and literal use of the words rhythm or poetry could deny the claim of these writings to being both poetic and rhythmical.
Enough of hard measure has been meted out to Walt Whitman in his own America—much rage, much indignation, and still more contempt, being mixed in the critical cup presented to be drunk by his lips, themselves far more contemptuous still. But he has had from the first one supereminent believer and admirer, Emerson; and he is gradually creating a band of enthusiasts, among whom Mr. Conway is honorably known to English readers. Two others may be mentioned here: Dr. O’Connor, who wrote a very open-mouthed, yet, in many respects, striking pamphlet, under the affected title of The Good Grey Poet; and Mr. John Burroughs, who is just now bringing out a volume named Notes on Walt Whitman as Poet and Person ....
Whitman’s enthusiasts in America make up in fervor for their paucity, and proclaim their hero to be, beyond all comparison, the poet of the epoch. Strange in the United States, this doctrine will sound doubly strange in England, where the poems have never yet, that we can remember, been so much as examined with any idea that they would possibly prove to be of an exceptionally high standard, and with a great future before them. Nevertheless, we believe this estimate to be the true one on three grounds, which may be laconically stated thus: That Whitman is, far more than any of his contemporaries, a man of his age, an initiator in the scheme and structure of his writings, and an individual of audacious personal ascendant, incapable of compromise of whatever kind. To develop this idea of the case at all adequately, so as to give it the least chance of acceptance, would require far more space than we have here at command, and in especial an amount of direct analysis of the subject-matter of the poems seriatirm, and an amplitude of citation which we cannot attempt. We must therefore content ourselves with a few observations of a more general kind, which lapse of time or a real study of Whitman’s writings may, perhaps, be found to confirm, but which, not as yet thus confirmed, must take their chance with the reader.
We will first of all clear off a few of the scores against Mr. Whitman. He not unfrequently alludes to gross things and in gross words—the clearest, the bluntest, and nearly the least civilly repeatable words which can come uppermost to the lips. Columns might be filled with a discussion of the real bearings of this fact—its essential rights and wrongs, its positive and relative proprieties. We will simply acknowledge that a fact it is, and one which, whatever may be its other aspects, materially interferes with the diffusions and reception of Mr. Whitman’s writings. He also uses a large number of words detestable to the literary sense, sometimes actually misapplied, and, at best, fitted for a Yankee stump orator, but forbidden to a poet. Such are Philosophs, Evangel-poem, Poemets, Harbinge, Experient, Orotund, and but too many more. He is sometimes obscure, often fragmentary and indefinite, and too much addicted to writing on an agglomerative system, where scores of items succeed each other, scarcely to be faggoted together, still less united. Some passages may be almost said to be written in nouns substantive; and we are far from thinking this plan devoid of a certain effectiveness, bringing back as it does the poetic presentment of facts, well-nigh to the first conditions of language and the rudiments of perception. Further, it is true that our author is often most arrogant and boundless in self-assertion; a self-assertion, however, which is not always to be understood as entirely personal of the man Walt Whitman, but partly as comprehending the identity of each and every man, of which Whitman makes himself the representative voice—and of every woman too, for the matter of that, as he continually trumpets forth the full co-equality of the sexes. With regard to this and all other points of fair objection to, Whitman’s writings, we should add that he is an author to be read consecutively and as a whole. To skim his poems is to perceive numerous and unsightly defects; to read them through is to be carried along by a wonderful originality and volume of multitudinous power, and to perceive the defects, prominent enough indeed, yet only like so many scraps and debris rolled on in the rush of the torrent.
The subject-matter of the poems, sectionally considered, is absolutely miscellaneous, and one might say limitless; but the writer’s Inscription to his collected edition furnishes a clue neither superfluous nor wholly indispensable, by saying that the total theme is Oneself—“that wondrous thing, a single, separate person”—combined with “the word en masse.” Thus one might term the whole the poem both of individual personality and of world-wide diffusion, or of potential ideal democracy. In a more bounded yet still very extended sense, it is also the poem of American nationality. Personal confidence, national pride and all-embracing sympathies proceed pari passu. One very singular impression constantly present to the reader is that the most literal view and treatment of every sort of theme merges into being the most rhapsodical, and the most material and defined conception passes into the most universal and exalté. It is the poetic intoxication of democracy; the essentially modern poem—as novel and typical in this way as what many people have been clamoring for these many years without getting it, a new order of architecture. The picturesqueness of the language, extra modern as it is, has a certain patriarchal and ultimate quality; often excessively vivid, moving and flashing with insight and suggestion, but not much in the ordinary line of word-painting—which, indeed, in many passages that might seem provocative of such treatment, is markedly withheld. One recognizes at last a kind of echo from the tone of Hebrew poetry, transferred into a modern key. One unmistakable element in the whole product is the splendid physical health and vigor of the writer. No man who had not a body in the soundest relation to all bodily facts, as well as a mind of the most spacious range and perceptions, could ever have written this book; let him but be brought down by sickness, and many things would look very different to the poet.
There is a paradoxical character about Whitman’s poems which it is important to note, and which makes it difficult even to criticize them in adequate terms without some appearance of paradox. He applies his mind’s eye to so many things, sees them so intensely as wholes, and so clearly on all sides, and uses such decisive terms in speaking of them that he tends continually to overstate each aspect of the facts and to leave the several aspects, however conflicting they may be or appear, to harmonize themselves as best they may without his aid. He evokes all voices of man and of nature; to him they seem choral enough, and other ears must accommodate themselves to the roar, with its possible clash and jar. The explanation of this is that Whitman is both an absolute realist and an absolute optimist. He is one of the few men who deeply feel and believe, as well as verbally proclaim, that “everything is for the best;” and at the same time he enters into every phase of life and fact with a zest of personal temperament which everywhere meets a response. Life and death he finds equally beautiful. He obliterates all theoretic distinctions, and openly accepts the whole universe in its totality and its every detail. He proclaims his relation to and sympathy with all evil as well as all good; and says that there is, in fact, no evil, or if there is, it is just as important as anything else. This might be supposed to rest on a base of utter materialism; but the contrary is the case—no author is more resolute and incessant in asserting the supremacy and eternity of soul. That is, in fact, what makes the poet so unshakably at his ease in any and every contingency; he entertains the most entire certainty that he is an eternal and necessary spirit, and that every one else is the like; that the human body, and the frame of things which environs him on all sides, are the right associated body, and the one only frame of things possible under the given conditions; and that these also are therefore inalienably right and necessary, and aspects of the eternal too. Thus saved from being a materialist, he might, with a contrary temperament, have become an ordinary fatalist, or passive indifferentist; but to Walt Whitman, the energumenos of American democracy and perpetual development, this likewise and equally is impossible.
The paradoxical element of the poems is such that one would be little surprised if at any moment they said the direct reverse of what they do say or what may have preceded; the reader would have to take such anomalies as they might come, and settle to his own satisfaction the relation of the particular statement to the total optimist and realist scheme. As it is, many an apparent or actual contradiction might be discovered in the volume; but this we regard as being due, not to any shifting of fundamental conceptions in the author’s mind, nor to any real lubricity or shallowness in it, but rather to the immensity of relation in which every isolated fact stands in his apprehension, and to the number of aspects which the same thing presents, and each of which may, in an abrupt and unsystematic method of treatment, be presented to the momentary exclusion of the others.
After all, however, the greatest distinction of Mr. Whitman as a poet is his positive and entire originality. To any one who thinks so, it is open to say that he is formless both in subject-matter and executive treatment; and that poetry must and shall conform to certain prescriptions and display certain delicacies and refinements of art such, for instance, as we find in amplest measure in the writings of Tennyson. We should be the last to deny the un-safeness of any haphazard obtuseness or antipathy to these canons of art; but when we light upon a masterly original genius opening up a new sphere of poetic opportunity we must decline to restrict ourselves to any standard which would exclude him from court. Whitman, with all his many and crying blemishes, appears to us to have done something new both in performance and in suggestion; something which is intensely modern and intensely American; something which, without any exaggerated wildness of speculation or foolish worship of the untried, may be expected to stand in a relation to future poetic efforts hardly less typical and monumental than the Homeric poems toward Grecian and epic work, or those of Shakespeare toward English and dramatic. Of course we do not say that Whitman is as good as Shakespeare or Homer, but that he is like them an originator, an initiator, possessed of a vast and noble range of conception and treatment. His book is incomparably the largest poetic work of our period. In this respect we know nothing to be set beside it save the as yet uncompleted Legènde des Siecles of Victor Hugo: and the largeness of that is of a different order, consisting of a great historico-speculative scheme, treated assuredly with vivid genius and original power, but still according to the established and traditional bases of poetic form. Whitman, on the contrary, breaks with all precedent. He thinks, sees, invents, executes, and initiates entirely out of his own personality; having a most capacious mind and a boundless personal relation to whatsoever he has
“To skim his poems is to perceive numerous and unsightly defects; to read them through is to be carried along by a Wonderful originality and volume of multitudinous power, and to perceive the defects, prominent enough indeed, yet only like so many scraps and debris rolled on in the rush of the torrent.”
himself contemplated and experienced, and no relation at all to prescription of any sort. Indeed, he would be a poet without analogy and without association were it not for this, which is one great element of that power and prospective leadership of which he is daringly conscious—that he is altogether and profoundly in sympathy with the predominant temper and aims of the predominant nation to which he belongs. He brings a glowing mind into contact with his own time and people; and the flame from which it catches fire is Americanism. His comprehension, his energy and his tenderness are equally extreme, and are all conversant with and devoted to actualities.
Many readers of Whitman may think that his writings are such as most people could produce if only they had the like iconoclastic boldness and the like Titanic power of temperament. This may or may not be a complete account of the genesis of the poems. All we can say is that, if it is a complete account, these qualities are not to be had for the asking. To have them and act upon their impulses in the poetic sphere is simply to have genius, and that of a very original and extraordinary calibre.
Source: William Michael Rossetti, “Walt Whitman’s Poems,” in The Poetry and Prose of Walt Whitman, edited by Louis Untermeyer, Simon and Schuster, 1949 pp. 977-82.
Creeley, Robert, “Introduction to ’Whitman Selected,’” in his Was That a Real Poem & Other Essays, edited by Donald Allen, Four Seasons Foundation, 1979.
Erkkila, Betsy, Whitman the Political Poet, Oxford University Press, 1989.
Greenspan, Ezra, Walt Whitman and the American Reader, Cambridge University Press, 1990.
Hall, Donald, “The Invisible World,” in his A Choice of Whitman’s Verse, Faber and Faber, 1968.
Lawrence, D.H., “Whitman,” in Whitman: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Roy Harvey Pearce, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs), 1962.
Reynolds, David S., Walt Whitman’s American: A Cultural Biography, Knopf (New York), 1995.
Whitman, Walt, Walt Whitman’s Civil War, compiled and edited by Walter Lowenfels, Knopf (New York), 1961.
Whitman, Walt, Leaves of Grass, edited by Emory Holloway, Doubleday (New York), 1929.
Hanchett, William, The Lincoln Murder Conspiracy, Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1986.
Like most conspiracy theories that disagree with the assumptions of official history, Hanchett’s claim that John Wilkes Booth acted as part of a large plot has to be read as just one man’s theory; still, like most unique theorists, Hanchett supports his point with complete, meticulous details.
Kincaid, Michael, “Some Intricate Purpose,” in Walt Whitman: The Measure of His Song, edited by Jim Perlman et. al., Minneapolis: Holy Cow! Press, 1981, pp. 288-296.
This excellent collection of poems and essays is an appreciation of Whitman’s art, with works by more than a hundred literati, including Sherwood Anderson, Allen Ginsberg, William Stafford, Pablo Neruda, and Henry Miller. Kincaid’s essay draws attention to the issues of femininity, life and death, and religion that helped him personally in understanding Whitman’s work.
Suchard, Alan, American Poetry: The Puritans Through Walt Whitman, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1988.
Seeing Whitman as the end of one segment of literary life, rather than as the beginning of one, helps the reader understand literature in general; rather than the usual relationships between writers, subtle connections are explored.
Zweig, Paul, Walt Whitman: The Making of the Poet, New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1984.
Zweig, a poet and professor of comparative literature, manages to slip past the trap that other biographers fall into of using Whitman’s own expressions to define him.