Mourning the Death of “Captain” Lincoln


Abraham Lincoln’s death 150 years ago today led to a poem that ranks among America’s most beloved poems, alongwith Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” and “Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy Evening” and Emily Dickinson’s “Because I Could Not Stop for Death.” “Oh Captain! My Captain!” was so popular that Whitman concluded many of his public readings with it.

It is powerful in large part because of the stark contrast between the cheering multitudes and the grim reality. The poet denies what has happened for as long as he can—“It is some dream”—before finally acknowledging the truth. His “father” gave his all and sacrificed his life so that the victor ship could come in with object won. The “bleeding drops of red” are both Lincoln’s and (metaphorically) Whitman’s.

I have an unusual perspective on the poem. President Jimmy Carter presented it to Yugoslavia after Grand Marshal Tito died, which is why Slovenia chose to have it read when it celebrated the 50th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day in 1995. I was in Slovenia on a Fulbright at the time and was asked to read the poem to a national television audience.

It came at the end of a long ceremony. Along with five others—we represented the allied forces, each with a poem chosen for us—I stood on a platform 20 feet in the air. I read next to last, right before the Slovenian reader, and I belted out the lines. You can read about the entire affair here.

The danger with the poem, which I didn’t entirely avoid, is that it lends itself to over-dramatization. Then again, if you are mourning the death of America’s greatest president, it’s hard not to let it all go.

Oh Captain! My Captain!

By Walt Whitman

O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d 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 ribbon’d 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 no pulse nor will,
The ship is anchor’d 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.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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