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Literary Devices And Main Ideas In The Walt Whitman's O Captain! My Captain!

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Walt Whitman may not have considered “O Captain! My Captain!” to be his finest work, but the rest of the world certainly disagrees. It was the most famous poem in his life, and now has become one of the most popular poems in American literature. By going stanza by stanza, we will see how he uses this poem to depict the fall of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman accomplishes a moving affect in his poem by using literary devices such as allusions, metaphors, repetition, and rhythm to engage the reader in mournful emotion.

The poem tells a story through the eyes of a sailor who comes home victorious after a rough voyage. He is focused on the shore that has people celebrating the crews safe return, but then realizes not everyone has returned unscathed. The captain is dead. It continues with a shift in tone and rhythm to mourn the fallen leader. Walt Whitman uses this poem as a tribute to Abraham Lincoln and his assassination.

Walt Whitman also known to some as “the father of free-verse” neglected to follow any kind of “rhyme or reason” in his poems except in “O Captain! My Captain!”. The eight-line, three stanza poem carries a strong iambic meter that is thrown off in the middle of each section. This allows Whitman to express how he and America was thrown into chaos and sorrow when Abraham Lincoln died so suddenly. Each section begins with an upbeat and quick rhythm to show the joyous mood that they have returned home. In line 3, “The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting” has an internal rhyme that gives a sense of cheer and comfort by staying in a customary form of poetry. This also happens in lines 11, 12, and 20. He uses alliteration to give the same feel of well-being like in lines 10, “for you the flag is flung”. Although as the poem reaches the 5th line in each stanza, the ambiance shifts. Whitman shortens the lines and changes the rhyme scheme which allows for a more chaotic feel. He also switches from using alliterations to apostrophes to interrupt the mood and focus the reader to a more somber moment. He moves the reader’s attention from celebration of a victory to the loss of a leader. He uses the change in rhythm and order to move the reader through a series of emotions to emphasize his message and tribute to Abraham Lincoln.

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Each stanza represents a different part of the grieving period: shock, denial, and acceptance. Whitman uses repetition to intensify these feelings in each section. “But O heart! heart! heart!” (line 5) reveals a pain in the sailor once he realizes his beloved captain has fallen. The repetition of the word cuts the sorrow in deeper than if he had said it just once. In the first stanza, the sailor calls “O Captain my Captain!” without knowledge that the fateful leader has fallen yet. As the second stanza comes along, an exclamation mark is added to the phrase, and he repeats “O Captain! my Captain!”. This small difference brings a large baggage of sorrow with it. It turns the stanzas from uncovering a death to grieving it. As the added “rise up” is repeated after it in the second stanza it strengthens the tone of denial that this section symbolizes. As the last stanza arrives Whitman no longer uses the phrase “O Captain! my Captain” he renounces the first part of it and starts the section off by simple saying “My Captain”. The surprise of “O Captain!” has been taken off and left with acceptance. By repeating this phrase over and over at the start of every stanza with only slight differences shows the process that the sailor and Whitman went through when the Captain and Abraham Lincoln died. Another phrase that is repeated is “Fallen cold and dead”. This is what ends every stanza as if to remind him that “My father” has died. That no matter how shocking or how much he denies it, the acceptance is always there. The repetition used shows the mourning process that happens when a death occurs so suddenly like Abraham Lincoln’s assassination and how Whitman and America felt.

The entirety of the poem serves as an extended metaphor as tribute to the fallen Abraham Lincoln. The poem is an elegy to him and his assassination. Whitman uses the captain in the poem to represent Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln was killed in the middle of his presidency and this is represented as the captain died in the middle of his command on the “deck”. The captain saw the end of the rough voyage that his ship went through but died before they arrived at port to celebrate. The United States is represented as that ship. In line 2, “weathered every rack” describes what the US went through during the war and then the line finishes with “the prize we sought is won” which indicates the end of the war and the Union winning. The difficult trip the ship went on is over as was the civil war right before Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. “Our fearful trip is done” (line 1) indicates that the civil war is over. The trip they went on is a metaphor for the civil war.

Walt Whitman was able to guide the reader through a central feeling of victory and loss as a tribute to show how he and America felt when the sudden death of Abraham Lincoln occurred. With detailed and thought-provoking use of metaphors, repetition, and genius work of rhythm to create a shift in atmosphere, he created a great tribute to the “fallen” leader. It is one of his most recognizable and known works because of the meaning behind it and how greatly he expressed his sorrows. No matter how much he regrets the success of it, the success only strengthens the meaning behind it.

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Literary Devices And Main Ideas In The Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! (2021, September 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 1, 2023, from
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