Commentary

Selected Criticism

Title:
'O Captain! My Captain!' [1865]
Author:
Eiselein, Gregory
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Though stylistically atypical of his verse, "O Captain! My Captain!" is one of Walt Whitman's most popular poems. It first appeared in the Saturday Press (4 November 1865) and subsequently in Sequel to Drum-Taps (1865-1866). After modestly revising it, Whitman placed it in "President Lincoln's Burial Hymn" in Passage to India (1871) and finally in the "Memories of President Lincoln" cluster in Leaves of Grass (1881). 

The rhyme, meter, stanza, and refrain in "O Captain" are conventional. The poem makes deliberate use of traditional metaphors, picturing the Union as a ship and the president as its captain. Although the ship has weathered the storm and re-entered the harbor safe and victorious, the captain (like the recently assassinated Lincoln) is dead. Capturing the triumph and grief of the war's end, "O Captain" is a public poem for a mass audience, an elegy remembering a beloved president. 

Intended for a large, inclusive readership, "O Captain" became the most recited and popular of Whitman's works. It was usually a requisite selection at Whitman's readings and until recently his most widely anthologized poem. Because of its acclaim at the expense of his other poems, Whitman expressed some small regret about writing "O Captain," but insisted that it had an emotional, historically necessary purpose. No longer so celebrated, "O Captain" continues to be a revealing representation of the rhetorics of despair and celebration that followed the war, and it remains Whitman's most successful attempt to reach a national audience. 

Bibliography 

Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989. 

Kaplan, Justin. Walt Whitman: A Life. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1980. 

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass: Comprehensive Reader's Edition. Ed. Harold W. Blodgett and Sculley Bradley. New York: New York UP, 1965. 


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