On 14 April 1865, American President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth (brother of the famous Shakespearian actor Edwin Booth) at Ford’s Theatre. Booth was a Confederate sympathiser and detested Lincoln.
American poet Walt Whitman’s (pictured above) life was changed and in many ways defined by the Civil War. He was a staunch unionist and had a brother fighting in the war. Concern for his brother who was injured took Whitman to Washington where he found work in the army paymaster’s office, a job which left him plenty of time to nurse sick and wounded men. Whitman wrote their letters home for them, read to them, and held the hands of the dying. The experience affected him profoundly and he later wrote of it in articles, books and poems.
Whitman’s original opinion of Lincoln was not high, but as the war went on, he came to deeply admire his president. Like other Northerners, he was shocked by the killing and immediately wrote this poem, written in a more conventional style than most of his works, and the only one anthologised during his lifetime. It’s an elegy, or a poem of mourning.
O Captain! my Captain!
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.
In an extended metaphor, Whitman pictures his country as a ship that is being brought safely back into port after a terrible voyage. There’s celebration at the safe arrival of the ship, with crowds swarming and a festival atmosphere. The speaker is a sailor on the ship and his powerful words and skilled use of repetition and alliteration (flag is flung, safe and sound) give the poem a musical quality, suited to a dirge sung after a death.
The poem gained a new popularity when it was included in the film Dead Poet’s Society with Robin Williams and became an iconic moment in popular culture.
Enjoy listening to the poem.
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