“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.

Walt Whitman enriched American literature with his outstanding creative work; he broke the new ground in poetry. Whitman despised slavery and fought for the ideals of freedom and democracy. Born into a poor family, he did not have a chance to finish school, so his path in literature is often called the path of overcoming. Yet it was probably the lack of formal schooling that enabled Whitman to create a new form of poetry, free verse.

Although the poem “O captain! My Captain!..” seems to possess a certain romantic quality, as well as a tragic element and indifference towards politics, in fact it was written on the death of the US president Abraham Lincoln. The poem is closely related to the drama film “Dead Poets Society” directed by Peter Weir. The movie received the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay, while the British Academy of Film and Television Arts named it the best film and the best soundtrack. Characters cite the poem more than once, revealing their devotion to the completely new value system opposed to conservatism. Freedom and development are the basic principles of Whitman’s poetry.

This poem was used by the creators of the computer game Mass Effect. Its lines can also be heard in one of the episodes of the Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman series.

Whitman’s verses in general, including “O captain! My Captain!..”, lack common rhythm, fixed meter pattern, and end rhyme. They are, however, rich in inner harmonies and enumerations. The author himself described his verses in the following way: “it should be as natural as human breathing”. The poem is actually based on the uneven rhythm that can be compared to the irregular breathing of a person or a group of people who are going through a great loss. The fact that the captain lost his life neither in a battle nor fighting against the elements, but when the port is already quivering on the horizon, makes this loss even greater.

The seaman on whose behalf the poem is written does not say just “Captain”, but “My Captain”, which emphasizes his devotion to the principles, that were leading the late captain through his life. To give this idea even more emphasis, Whitman used the image of a father: “Here Captain! dear father!” Father is a person whom the son entirely trusts and who would never betray his trust. This image shows that this devotion has no limits. Devotion to the person who led the “ship”, the United States of America, from slavery to the rise of democratic freedoms.

Reviewed by Katerina Sidoruk