Examples of Symbolism in "O Captain! My Captain!"

Whitman uses metaphor to describe Lincoln's leadership as that of a captain.
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Walt Whitman's short poem "O Captain! My Captain!" was written to express his despair over the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and to honor him as a leader. The Library of Congress says that Whitman was a great admirer of Lincoln's during his life, and he saw the president as an honest and courageous man. "O Captain! My Captain!", which the Library of Congress says was Whitman's most popular poem, uses extended metaphor and symbolism to create meaning.

1 The Titular Captain

The captain in the title of the poem is a symbol for Lincoln himself. The poem begins with a celebration with the captain, who has just led them to victory. However, events quickly turn for the worse as the narrator is shocked to see the drops of his captain's blood on the deck of the ship and his captain "fallen cold and dead." The lines express the feelings of Whitman and other Americans upon news that Lincoln was shot and killed at Ford's Theater. He wants to imagine that "It is some dream" that Lincoln has been killed.

2 The Fearful Trip

The poem opens by celebrating that "our fearful trip is done." The "fearful trip" is the mission through which the captain has led his people. It is a symbol for the Civil War itself, which divided the country and left more than 600,000 dead. Just before he died, Lincoln had guided the United States through four years of the Civil War, which he helped bring to an end, including passing the 13th amendment that abolished slavery just three months earlier.

3 Pulling in to Port

When Lincoln was killed, the Civil War had not officially ended. Almost two months later, the last Confederate States Army surrendered, bringing an end to all fighting. In the poem, the captain has nearly reached the port, or the final finish of his journey, just as Lincoln had nearly reached the final end to the war. The people are all waiting to celebrate with him. The port is also a symbol of the final end of the journey that is Lincoln's life.

4 Symbolic Ship

The ship in the poem is a metaphor for both the country that Lincoln guided through the war and for his own life. In the beginning of the poem, it symbolizes the country, as it "weather'd every rack" in the war, but eventually, it wins the "prize," by bringing an end to the war. By the end of the poem, the ship has become a symbol of Lincoln's own life. The narrator says that the ship is anchored and its voyage completed after he has admitted that his captain, Lincoln, "has no pulse nor will."

Maria Magher has been working as a professional writer since 2001. She has worked as an ESL teacher, a freshman composition teacher and an education reporter, writing for regional newspapers and online publications. She has written about parenting for Pampers and other websites. She has a Master's degree in English and creative writing.