O Captain! my Captain! These famous words have been uttered countless times around the globe, becoming nearly commonplace. However, many do not know their origin — Walt Whitman’s beautiful poem published in his book, Leaves of Grass:
As well written as this poem may be, it can only be truly appreciated after understanding its meaning. The poem itself is an elegy, or a somber poem reflecting and lamenting on the dead. In this case, it is an elegy to a Captain who recently passed away. Further, it is celebrating the safe return of their ship to its home port. Whitman starts off by describing the hardships at sea, but contrasts this with the cheers of the people on the mainland — celebrating their return. Unfortunately, he then goes on to reveal that the captain lies on the deck, “fallen cold and dead.” In the following stanza, Whitman begs the captain to rise again and witness this splendid scene of joy, joy induced by their successful return. Further, he states that the captain is loved by the masses: “For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.” Yet, this matters not, as the captain remains dead, albeit it all just feels like “some dream.”
In addition to the aforementioned analysis, many feel that Whitman intended this poem to have a much larger meaning. The poem was written shortly after President Abraham Lincoln’s untimely death, as he was assassinated in a theater by John Wilkes Booth. Thus, it is believed that the captain is a metaphor for Lincoln, who was adored by many. The ship then represents the war-plagued nation, finally freed from the woes of the Civil War. Knowing this, the poem takes on an entirely new, righteous significance. As with many other poets, Whitman’s poetry is best appreciated after an in-depth look.