O Captain my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered 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 ribboned 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 anchored 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.
O Captain! My Captain!
Written on the occasion Abraham Lincolns assassination, O Captain! My Captain! was first published in the New York Saturday Press (November 1865) and was later included, along with When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd, in a group of poems titled Sequel to Drum Taps (1865). While When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomd has become one of Whitmans most critically acclaimed poems, O Captain! My Captain!, which incorporates more conventional rhyme and meter, was by far the most popular of Whitmans poems during his lifetime.
O Captain! My Captain! became an instant classic, and children were taught to recite its verses in school. Yet Whitman thought the praise the poem garnered was unwarranted. He is noted to have said: Im almost sorry I ever wrote that poem…. I say that if Id written a whole volume of My Captains Id deserve to be spanked and sent to bed with the worlds compliments — which would be generous treatment, considering what a lame duck book such a book would have been! At the heart of this statement is Whitmans recognition that the reading audience of his day still preferred conventionally rhymed and metered poems over more experimental free-verse forms that he himself favored. Nevertheless, O Captain! My Captain! does attest to Whitmans versatility as a poet. While engaging fixed patterns of rhyme and meter, the poem manages to communicate Whitmans heroic vision of Lincoln, the great Union leader of the Civil War, as well as the horror, shock, and dismay Whitman felt at learning of Lincolns assassination.
The fallen Captain of the poem is an allusion to Abraham Lincoln, and the ship is a metaphor for the ship of state, or more precisely, the United States of America. The speakers difficulty in coming to grips with the death of his Captain is the subject of the poem. While he knows his Captain is dead, he hopes that he is dreaming, that he is somehow mistaken. However, the last line, in repeating the refrain Fallen cold and dead, lends a sense of finality to the poem and leaves no doubt in the readers mind. The Captain (Lincoln), the speakers father figure and leader, is indeed dead, and what should have been a time of great rejoicing at the end of the Civil War has been turned into a time of national grief and mourning.