O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

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How does knowledge of Whitman's life and era help identify the extended metaphor in "O Captain! My Captain!"?

Quick answer:

Knowing that Whitman lived during the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation allows the extended metaphor in "O Captain! My Captain!" to become much clearer. The captain in this poem is a representation of Abraham Lincoln, and the ship's journey is a metaphor for Lincoln's struggles to preserve the union during the war. The death of the captain after all his hard work symbolizes the tragedy of Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Expert Answers

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To fully understand this poem, one must understand that Whitman is writing about the death of Abraham Lincoln and the end of the Civil War. Whitman supported the north and supported abolition. He thought very highly of Lincoln.

A metaphor is a comparison that does not use like or as. The extended metaphor in the poem is the comparison of Lincoln to the captain of a ship. The ship is the United States. The captain has successfully brought the ship to port, but has died in the process. In other words, Lincoln has successfully preserved the union through winning the Civil War but been assassinated for his efforts.

Once we know that the captain is a metaphor for Lincoln and the ship a metaphor for the United States, we can start charting how Whitman uses the metaphor. In stanza one, the "fearful trip" is the Civil War. The "prize... won" is the defeat of the rebel states and the preservation of the union. The "bells" are ringing because of happiness over the victory. Juxtaposed to that joy, however, is the horror and sadness of the captain's (Lincoln's) death.

In stanza two, the speaker wishesor dreamsthat his beloved captain could stand up and hear the appreciation offered for his victory. This parallels Whitman's wish that Lincoln could still be alive.

In stanza three, the speaker comes back to realitywhatever he wishes, the captain, Lincoln, is dead. The speaker uses another metaphor to describe him; not only is he compared to a captain, but is seen as the speaker's "father," suggesting how close and intimate the speaker felt to the dead man. As the poem ends, the rest of the country celebrates the victory while the speaker mourns the loss.

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