An elegy is a poem of mourning.  Most elegies are about someone who has died.  Some elegies mourn a way of life that is gone forever.  “O Captain!  My Captain!” mourns the tragic death of President Abraham Lincoln. The poem was written in honor of President Lincoln following his assassination, and it also has celebratory passages that mark the end of the Civil War.

The poem starts with a tone of praise and commendation, as "our fearful trip is done." Whitman praises Lincoln's efforts during the Civil War, stating that "the port is near." In other words, Lincoln led the ship of state through the war, and the ship is about to safely be led to port. Then, the poem has a more mournful tone in the second part of each stanza (the second half of each stanza is indented). For example, the second part of the first stanza reads, "But O heart! heart! heart!" The repetition of the word "heart" and the reference to "bleeding drops of red" refer to the nation's grief over Lincoln's assassination.

The second stanza mentions the celebrations that are being conducted to commemorate the end of the war. The poem mentions the ways in which the nation is celebrating, including bells, bugle calls, and "bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths." In the midst of this celebration, mourners are grieving for Lincoln, who is commemorated in a more somber tone in the second half of the stanza, which begins "Here Captain! dear father!" 

The third stanza begins with an elegiac tone. It starts, "My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still." The second half of the stanza is both celebratory and somber. It begins, "Exult O shores, and ring O bells!" In other words, the poet wants the celebrations of the war's end to continue, but he says he will be in mourning: "But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies." This goes back to the metaphor of the ship of state, on whose deck Lincoln lies slain. 

This elegy used an extended metaphor.  That means that a metaphor is stated, and the comparison is extended as far as the poet can take it. The Captain is Abraham Lincoln and the ship is the United States of America. Lincoln has steered his ship (country) safely into the harbour after enduring the trials and tribulations of the Civil War. He has succeeded in putting an end to the inhuman practice of slavery, but unfortunately the Captain, Abraham Lincoln, has sacrificed his life in this noble endeavour.

The main theme of the elegy is that a noble leader-the Captain-  must be ready to lay down his life in the struggle for justice. Courage, both physical and mental, and integrity of purpose are the hallmark of a true leader.


Last modified: Sunday, 8 April 2018, 12:25 PM