Walt Whitman's O Captain, My Captain
During the Civil War, poet Walt Whitman (1819-1892) volunteered as a nurse in Union hospitals outside of Washington, D.C. As an ardent Union patriot, Whitman wrote one of his most famous works, the elegy “O Captain! My Captain!” in the wake of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. For Whitman, the Civil War was the central event of his lifetime, and Lincoln’s assassination was a shocking conclusion to four years of unrestrained bloodletting.
Walt Whitman never personally met Abraham Lincoln. Yet the cause of Unionism cannot be disconnected from Lincoln, who transformed the conflict from a petty fight over states’ rights into the higher cause of emancipation. Whitman opens the poem by noting that “our fearful trip is done” and that “the prize we sought is won.” The imagery then shifts to the deck of the ship with “my Captain lies/Fallen cold and dead.”
Unlike most of Whitman’s other poems, which are largely written in free verse, “O Captain! My Captain!” has a strict rhyme structure, following the pattern of four longer lines followed by four shorter ones. Further, Whitman employs the extended metaphor of the captain of the ship in order to drive home the influential way in which Lincoln was responsible for directing the Union during the war. The poem became so popular during Whitman’s lifetime that in later years he expressed regret for having written it, after being called upon to recite it so many times.