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Walt Whitman (1819-1892) composed the poem "O Captain! My Captain!" after Abraham Lincoln's assassination in 1865. The poem is classified as an elegy or mourning poem, and was written to honour Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States. In the first stanza, the speaker shouts with excitement to the ship's captain about making it home safe and sound. The ship after enduring tough storms and strong winds made it back to the dock. Exhausted after a tiresome journey, the mission has been a success. As the ship draws near the harbour, the poem takes on a dark turn - the heart is shattered and torn over the death of the ship's captain.
In the second stanza the sailor implores the now dead captain to rise from the dead. The people ashore await their prized captain to lead the way and stamp his mark on history. The crowd is jubilant as they celebrate using a number of devices such as raising flag in victory, holding flowers and cheering for the captain. The sailor looks at the fallen comrade and wishes this nightmare was just a dream.
The third stanza begins in a somber mood as the poet finally accepted that the Captain is dead and gone. Here there is vivid and darker imagery.
Unusually for Whitman, the poem has a regular rhyme scheme, "O Captain! My Captain!" became one of Whitman's most famous poems, one that he would read at the end of his famous lecture about the Lincoln assassination. Whitman became so identified with the poem that late in lie he remarked, "Damn my Captain...I'm almost sorry I ever wrote the poem."
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.
-- Walt Whitman --
Written for Grammar Voices (Auckland Grammar School)
Text by Walt Whitman - "O Captain! My Captain!"