A lyric is any fairly short poem, uttered by a single speaker, who expresses a state of mind or a process of perception, thought, and feeling. “O Captain, My Captain,” is a ceremonial poem uttered in a public voice on a public occasion, namely on the death of Abhraham Lincoln. As in many other lyric poems, there is a strong prevalence of objective or dramatic element.
“O Captain, My Captain” is sung in the voice of a Union recruit. He is a young boy; he has sailed on the ship of state with his captain, whom he calls, Oedipally, “dear father”; the tide of war has now turned and victory is in sight, as cheering crowds welcome the victorious ship. At this very moment the captain is shot, and dies. The moving turn of the poem comes two-thirds of the way through the poem. In the rest (previous) two stanzas the boy addresses the captain as someone still living, a “you” who, cradled in the boy’s arm, can hear the words directed to him. But in the third stanza the young sailor un-willingly resorts to third-person reference, marking his captain as dead: “My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still.” The hierarchy of commander—remote from his troops—has been lessened to the hierarchy of captain—sharing a ship with his men—and then lessened to the familial hierarchy of father and son, as Lincoln’s relation to others becomes ever more democratic, even intimate.
It is a direct unburdening of the author’s overweighed heart. He does not materially differ in his feeling from his fellow-citizens, and everyone, in reading the poetry aloud, adopt the emotion as his own. There is certainly no dramatic emotion in the heart of the speaker in the poem. But there is definitely a figurative situation and representation of the Ship of State, coming in from its long voyage, - that is, the civil war, - and a picture of Lincoln, the captain, lying dead upon the deck. These objective elements enable us to grasp the situation, and more delicately suggests Lincoln, whose name does not occur in the poem.
Two stylistic features—its meter and its use of refrain—mark “O Captain” as a designedly democratic, and blends its lyrical and dramatic elements. In each stanza, four seven-beat lines are followed by a slightly changing ballad refrain. Whitman has chosen to speak now as a sailor-boy, the diction of the poem offers the clichés of victory that such a boy might use: “Our fearful trip is done, … the prize we sought is won, / The port is near.” Everything on shore adheres to the expected conventions of popular celebration—“For you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills, ...” Even “the bleeding drops of red,” the “mournful tread” of the sailor, and the captain “fallen cold and dead” come from the clichés of war-journalism.
Lyrical poetry usually follows a rhyme scheme. Throughout the poem there is a distinct rhyme scheme, - AABCDEFE, GGHIJEKE, and LLMNOEPE for each stanza respectively, -which is unusual for Whitman. The poem is an elegy – melancholic, mournful and contemplative. The melodic flow of words synchronizing with the somber mood and intense sadness makes it one of the most memorable lyrical elegies.