TASK: Give a brief account (in your own words) of why Whitman referred to Abraham Lincoln as “O Captain! My Captain”.
American poet Walt Whitman referred to 16th US President Abraham Lincoln as his captain in his poem “O Captain! My Captain!” because of Whitman’s personal feelings toward the President. The American Civil War was an important event in Whitman’s life and it was during this time that Lincoln was President (hence why Lincoln is the “captain” in Whitman’s poem – he is the captain of the ship that is the United States of America). While initially indifferent to Lincoln, Whitman came to think differently to the President overtime and grew to greatly approve of him.
The poem was written after Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 and Whitman uses the poem to eulogise and mourn him. He asks Lincoln, his captain, to “rise up and hear the bells,” in the second stanza to celebrate the end of the war and his admirable leadership throughout the war, “”for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills; for you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding; for you they call…”. The repetition of “for you” emphasises the deep love the people – and Whitman – had for Lincoln. The third stanza takes on a more somber and serious tone, as Whitman paints the picture of his captain lying dead with “his lips are pale and still” and with “no pulse nor will”. The rhyming couplets further drive this sadness home and makes the reader feel the people’s (and Whitman’s) loss deeper.