When Walt Whitman's poem “O Captain! My Captain” was first published in 1865, no one had any doubts about what it meant even though Whitman presents his message in the form of a metaphor. The speaker calls out to his Captain as the poem opens, marveling at how the ship has survived a horrible storm at sea. It is now nearing port, and even though it has been tossed about, it has pulled through. Bells ring out. People exult. The “bugle trills,” and the flag waves. The people turn eagerly toward the Captain, calling for him. But the Captain lies “cold and dead” on the deck.
As the poem continues, the speaker describes his dead Captain, the man he calls his father. He is “pale and still.” The ship is safe, but the Captain has no pulse. The ship has won a great victory, but the fallen Captain has lost, for he is dead.
Whitman is, of course, writing about Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated on April 15, 1865, shortly after the surrender of the Confederacy to the Union that ended the Civil War. The ship of state (the United States) had come through a great storm indeed, a storm that threatened to overwhelm it and split it permanently. But just as the people of the North were celebrating victory, their Commander in Chief, the “Captain” of the ship of state, was killed by an assassin's bullet. Mourning replaced celebration as people turned to their president only to see him lying “cold and dead.”
We can see, then, that Whitman's poem is very much historical even though it presents history through metaphor. Modern readers need to pay close attention to the poem's original context in order to grasp the power of the poem's lament.