“America Singing.” “O, Captain! My Captain!” by Walt Whitman
keel – the body of a ship
rack – in this case, stress or torture
Questions and Answers
1. Refer to the introduction to Walt Whitman’s poem and explain who the captain is in this poem.
The introduction to Walt Whitman’s poetry reveals that this poem was written shortly after the death of Abraham Lincoln; it would seem he is the subject of this writing.
2. In the first stanza, Whitman writes that “the prize we sought is won.” Taking into consideration the period in which this poem was written, what do you think the “prize” is of which Whitman speaks?
Since Abraham Lincoln spent most of his time in office fighting for the emancipation of slaves in the United States, the prize may be winning the Civil War and setting free the many slaves in the South.
3. How does the captain’s death affect the speaker’s experience of the victory?
Although the masses exult over the victory, the speaker paces the deck “with mournful tread,” grieving his captain rather than joining the celebration.
4. Why do you think Whitman chose to use this form for this poem?
Answers may vary. Example: The strict form of this poem seems to fit the occasion; the rhyme and meter make it resonate like a death knell or mournful dirge. The repeated return to the refrain mimics the way the speaker’s mind keeps returning to his dead captain whenever it threatens to veer towards celebrating the victory.
5. What kinds of feelings seem prevalent in this poem? Do contradictory feelings exist here? What are they?
Answers may vary. Example: The author seems to love and admire his captain as he continually points out the efforts of others who show him praise and adulation. At the same time, however, each stanza ends with a statement of great sadness and disbelief. While the author is proud of the character and actions of his captain, he simultaneously feels great grief that he has died.