O Captain! My Captain!

by Walt Whitman

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What does the speaker in "O Captain! My Captain!" see on the ship's deck?

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In "O Captain! My Captain!" Walt Whitman ends each stanza with the image of the Captain "fallen cold and dead" upon the deck. The first two stanzas contrast the joyful and triumphant return of the ship with "the people all exulting" and the tragic fate of the man who has made all this joy possible. Each time, the speaker apostrophizes the Captain, first telling him that their ordeals are over and congratulating him for bringing the ship safely home. In the second stanza, he twice asks the Captain to "rise up" and accept the praise due to his magnificent achievement. In the third stanza, he begins with the acknowledgement that the Captain is dead and "has no pulse nor will," referring to him not only as "My Captain" but also as "My father."

It is well known that Whitman wrote this poem, an unusual one for him in tightly rhymed and metered formal verse, as a lament, an extended metaphor, and an allegory for the career of Abraham Lincoln. Whitman wrote the poem in 1865 and first published it in a pamphlet of eighteen poems about the Civil War. However, the poem is a powerful expression of grief and tragic irony even without this historical association. Abraham Lincoln is a unique figure in American history, but the situation the poem describes, that of dying or being murdered, at the moment of greatest triumph, is one repeated throughout history, all the way back to Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar.

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