O Captain! my Captain!

O Captain! My Captain!
by Walt Whitman (1819-1892)

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 darling;
.           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!
.                       The 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.

Walt Whitman could write extraordinarily good verse when he wanted to. However, he is much more known for his work that departs from traditional meter, exploring new possibilities for poetry. Alas, that those who followed him had not his skill; for when the “free verse” movement became dominant, though they celebrated Whitman’s experimentation, few could match him. Anyway, that is all an aside: this poem is in traditional English meter, and a magnificent example of it at that.

Perhaps I am partial to this poem because it is written in heptameter, which is my favorite form to write in, and little explored by most poets. Here Whitman uses it to great effect, using form to support content. Notice how lines 2,3, and 4 in the first two stanzas have an energetic rhythm, appropriate to the celebration of victory (for the ship has indeed been victorious), but then they are immediately followed by heptameter lines broken into two pieces, which consequently break that rhythm with the gravity of the cost of that victory (the captain’s death).

But wait, you say, I’m not sure those lines are really heptameter. Just look at the first line of the poem there: “O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,” Where are those 7 beats?

Well, here’s how it scans: ~/~ (/) ~/~ (/) ~/~/~/

(Or alternatively, ~/~ || ~/~ || ~/~/~/)

Is the bearded poet cheating here? What are those parenthetical beats? Well, read the line again—are you racing through it as a 5-beat line, or are you pausing after those exclamation points? I myself pause—slightly on the first exclamation mark, and a more pronounced pause on the second one. And each of those pauses is weighty—I am calling out to one loved, who will never again answer. And here’s what’s happening: the time keeps ticking, the metronome keeps the beat in the background even while the musician pauses between notes. This happens with “O Captain! my Captain!” in both the first two stanzas, and again with “Here Captain! dear father! The arm beneath your head!” When Whitman wrote that, he no doubt sensed 7 beats worth of time filled that line, even if the syllable count appeared short. If you re-wrote that line to contain 7 pronounced beats, it would feel too big, and not fit into the poem. Similarly, on the first line of the last stanza,

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,

There is another hidden beat between “answer” and “his”: ~/~/~/~ (/) ~/~/~/

Now, we could try to pronounce that beat—by adding “me,” for example:

My Captain does not answer me, his lips are pale and still,

But when we read it, we still need to pause at that weighty comma, and the line feels too big. So Whitman feeling the poetry instead of counting it like the learned astronomer, lets the pause take the place of the beat.

Whitman, by the way, is not doing anything innovative here: Alexander Pope, the master of Neoclassical [very] metrical poetry, also used such a pause (called a medial caesura, and denoted by that || sign you saw earlier) as a beat:

To err is human; to forgive, divine.

This scans as ~/~/~ || ~~/~/, in a verse essay that has 5 beats in every line. Thus the || gets counted as a (/), providing that 5th beat. The caesura is not always used as beat—sometimes it merely provides a regular pause between fixed portions of a metrical line—but here, and in “O Captain! my Captain!” it does.

So what is the lesson to take away from this? It is this: formal poetry is NOT about counting syllables in a line, and creating a poem out of such numbers. The numbers are there, and they are important; but you have to be able to feel the poetry to make them work for you. Occasionally, that sense will cause a deviation from the number (and as Pope pointed out in his Essay on Criticism, if the exception to the rule brings about the intended effect of the rule, then for that particular case, the exception is the rule). Now, that is emphatically not a license to ignore rules and meter—don’t try to learn more from the lesson than what is there—but it is a caution that poetry is more musical than mechanical, and the poet needs to develop their ear for what is meet.

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2 responses

  1. By the way, “O Captain! my Captain!” is an extended metaphor celebrating Abraham Lincoln, written after his assassination.

  2. […] I don’t [yet] have any other poetry by Lincoln on the site, but I do have one about Lincoln, by Walt Whitman. […]

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