O Captain! My Captain! Summary
Whitman composed “O Captain! My Captain!” to commemorate Abraham Lincoln in the wake of his assassination in 1865, just five days after the end of the American Civil War. The three-stanza poem employs a layered conceit which represents Abraham Lincoln as the eponymous “Captain” of a ship returning to port. The ship represents the Union's cause, and its victory at sea is the Union’s victory in the Civil War (1861–1865).
In the first stanza, the speaker, a sailor, salutes his captain. He reports that their voyage is successful and nearly complete and that “the prize we sought is won.” As the ship approaches port, the speaker describes the bells tolling and the celebratory crowds gathering. But in a sudden shift, the speaker exclaims that his captain has fallen on the deck “cold and dead.”
In the second stanza, the speaker implores his captain to “rise up” and see the crowd eagerly rejoicing in his victorious return. As the speaker tells his captain, “for you the flag is flung,” “for you the bugle trills,” and “for you the shores a-crowding.” Again, the tone shifts as the speaker acknowledges that his captain has “fallen cold and dead” but expresses hope that “it is some dream.”
In the third and final stanza, the speaker examines his deceased captain, whose “lips are pale and still” and who “has no pulse or will.” Though the voyage is complete and the ship safely harbored, the speaker is wracked with grief. He calls for the bells to be rung and for the crowds to exult, but he walks “with mournful tread[…] the deck my Captain lies, / Fallen cold and dead.”