Walt Whitman: Oh Captain, My Captain

Walt Whitman wrote “Oh Captain, My Captain” in the wake of President Lincoln’s assassination.

Unfortunately, the piece is often best known from the film “Dead Poets Society” in which rebellious students, defending a professor (Robin Williams) about to be fired, stand on their desks and recite the poem.  Thus, it is my intention to examine “Oh Captain, My Captain” through a less media driven lens (no matter how much I enjoyed the movie).

Below is Whitman’s poem, a poem paying homage to the fallen leader who struggled to keep the Union together.

Oh Captain, My Captain

Abraham Lincoln, 1809—1865.

—Walt Whitman.

O CAPTAIN! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won;
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring.
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells:
Rise up!—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribboned wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding;
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning.
Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck
You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;
My father does not feel my arm, he has nor pulse nor will;
The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.
From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won:
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.

Though the poem does not address it (which is appropriate for a eulogy), Lincoln was oft criticized not only by Southern plantation owners, but by those defending states’ rights which included the right to own slaves.  However, as demonstrated in a letter to Horace Greely, editor of the influential New York Tribune, Lincoln’s primary motive was to maintain the union, not necessarily eradicate slavery:
“My paramount object in this struggle to save the Union, and is either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.”
“How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that “all men are created equal.” We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be take pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].[6]”
Whitman also does not directly confront that Lincoln died before seeing the U.S.’s civil dispute resolved.  However, the poet indicates that Lincoln was safer and more peaceful dead than living among the crisis: “The ship is anchored safe and sound, its voyage closed and done.”
That consolation is minimal, though, compared to Whitman’s grief, his “mournful tread.”
Whitman ends his poem in seeming despair:  “Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
Did the poet fear, now that Lincoln was gone, that the war would revive itself?  If so, how many shared this belief?
The key to comprehending the tragedy of the American Civil War lies not in pure analysis of military strategy, but also in examining the people of the period.  While contemporary historians, philosophers and the general public will never truly comprehend, asking the questions and searching for honest answers are the more complicated paths to understanding history.  Whitman stands at the trail head.
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