O Captain! My Captain!
by Walt Whitman
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 exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
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 bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning;
Here Captain! dear father!
This 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 still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
About the Poem
“O Captain! My Captain!” is a Walt Whitman elegy written in 1865 to commemorate President Abraham Lincoln’s death. It was first published in Whitman’s collection of poems inspired by the events of the American Civil War, Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865).
The poem is perhaps Whitman’s most famous, which is ironic given how conventional it is in meter, form, and subject matter compared to much of Whitman’s other work.
Although some critics claim Whitman regretted ever writing “O Captain! My Captain!” it undeniably captured the mood of a nation in mourning and remains one of Whitman’s best-loved and most-quoted poems.
Major Theme in “O Captain! My Captain!”
Here is the central theme of “O Captain! My Captain!”
Theme Victory and Loss
The poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is both a celebration of the end of the American Civil War and an elegy for President Abraham Lincoln. Victory and loss are thus inextricably linked throughout the poem. On the one hand, its mourning is offset by joyful reminders that the war has been won. Its festivities, on the other hand, are overshadowed by melancholy.
In this sense, Whitman’s poem illuminates the lingering pain and trauma of wartime losses, as well as the impossibility of ever separating victory’s triumph from its human costs.
“O Captain! My Captain!” uses poetic form to model the close relationship between triumph and pain by juxtaposing the language of loss and victory.
At first glance, it appears that this will be a poem commemorating the Union’s Civil War victory. The speaker commends President Lincoln for steering the metaphorical ship of state through “every wrack,” i.e. storm, and declares that “the prize we sought has been won.”
However, halfway through this triumphant first stanza, the speaker interrupts, saying, “But O heart! heart! heart!” “… my Captain lies, dead and cold.” The abrupt appearance of a qualification—”But, O heart!”—informs the reader that all is not well. Before facing loss, the poem barely has time to celebrate the triumph.
One of the poem’s painful ironies is that the triumph is meant to honor the leader who won it, but President Lincoln is not present to witness it.
This is emphasized by the happy scenes that begin each stanza: ringing bells, “bouquets,” “wreaths,” and cheering crowds. The poem contrasts these happy and vibrant moments with the “Captain’s” body, which is “cold,” “dead,” “pale,” and “still.”
With the repetition of the word “you,” the speaker emphasizes that all of these celebrations are for President Lincoln—”for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding, For you they call,” the poet says five times.
The word’s repetition emphasizes the poignancy of Lincoln’s absence from his own celebration.
Even minor formal details, such as the poem’s punctuation, convey the tension between celebration and mourning as the speaker’s emotions shift from joy to grief. The exclamation points after “O Captain!” in the first stanza, for example, appear to be triumphant celebrations. However, as the poem progresses, the meaning of the exclamation points shifts subtly. “O heart!” becomes a cry of grief and dismay. Because the speaker is now addressing a dead man rather than a living leader, the exclamation points after “O Captain!” in the second stanza take on even darker connotations.
The five total exclamation points in this stanza take on a desperate tone as if the speaker is pleading with the fallen leader to resurrect.
There is only one exclamation point in the final stanza, indicating the poem’s newly restrained tone of quiet grief. “Exult O shores, and ring O bells!” says the speaker, acknowledging that the world around him is celebrating. —but he walks with “mournful tread,” mourning even as the country celebrates.
Throughout, the speaker dramatizes the painfully close relationship between loss and victory. The celebration of the Union’s triumph is reframed by the reminder that the country has paid a dear price. Whitman seems to argue that loss and victory are closely linked in all wartime settings, where victory always requires.