Walt Whitman

Start Your Free Trial

What is Walt Whitman's tone in his poem "O Captain! My Captain!"?

Expert Answers info

Domenick Franecki eNotes educator | Certified Educator

calendarEducator since 2016

write4,282 answers

starTop subjects are Literature, History, and Social Sciences

Walt Whitman's tone in "O Captain! My Captain!" is largely elegiac, in that it resembles an elegy. 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. 

Further Reading:

check Approved by eNotes Editorial