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Symbolism and Imagery in O Captain! My Captain!

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Updated: Jun 16th, 2022

What does the ship represent in O Captain! My Captain!? What about the port? Find out the answers to these questions in the essay below.

Symbolism and imagery are some of the significant elements of style in poetry. In this essay, symbolism and imagery in O Captain, My Captain shall be analyzed in detail. Symbolism element is used to emphasize internalized poetry aspects to describe the feeling and thoughts of a poet due to a lack of better words to describe them.

It uses an object, an idea, a person, or a place to bring out a more profound meaning rather than what it represents itself. Imagery element, on the other hand, uses figurative words to make the reader see things from the poet’s perspective. It emphasized creative speaking or writing, vivid images, suggestions, or descriptive presentation.

It not only needs to be visual but involves all the five senses; sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. The two poetry elements are also referred to as the metaphors in a single terminology. The poet employs the abundant use of imagery and symbolism in passing the message, ideas, and the subject of the poem.

O Captain! My Captain! Symbolism

The first stanza of the poem O Captain, My Captain has a lot of imagery and symbolism depicting the era of Abraham Lincoln. In the first line, the captain is used to symbolize Abraham Lincoln, who was the union leader in the civil war. What does the ship symbolize in O Captain, My Captain? The ship is used to represent America as a country, and the “fearful trip” (Whitman, 2006, p. 1) is a representation of the civil war during the Abraham Lincoln era.

The “prize we sought is won” (Trinh, 2002, p. 1) symbolizes the union victory in freeing the people from slavery during the civil war. “The port is near, the bells I hear, people exulting” (, 2001, p. 1) is used to symbolize the jubilation and happiness of the American people since they had overcome the war of slavery and won.

O Captain! My Captain! Imagery

The proceeding lines deliver the captain’s death after the victory of the civil war, which is the main theme of the poem. Repetition of “but O Heart! Heart! Heart! “(Trinh, 2002, p. 1) represents the speakers’ horror to the fact that the captain has died.

Repetition of the word heart with an exclamation mark is an imagery representation of the disbelief in the speakers’ towards his captain’s death. “Bleeding drops of red” (, 2006, p. 1) is used to represents the captain’s wounded heart and the wounds in the captain’s body. The rhythm portrays the emotion of the speaker and in the country population at large.

The second stanza contrast the two groups emotions, this is made possible through the use of rich imagery to portray the different effect of the president assassination. One group of the crowd is gathering to celebrate the victory of the military that was lead by the dead Lincoln while the other crowd is mourning his death. “Rise up and hear the bells” (Whitman, 2006, p. 1). The bell symbolizes the jubilation by one group and wailing, anguish, and pain of loss in the other group of the population.

Also, the bugle can be taken to represent military calls for victory; they are played at soldiers’ funerals as a sign of honor, and a hero send-off. Wreaths and bouquets is an imagery of the two emotion state the population is going through after the assassination.

One crowd is rejoicing, while the other is mourning the death of the leader Abraham Lincoln. The summary depicts the different reactions by the population to his death. The captain is being referred to as the father by the speaker for the first time in the poem (Trinh, 2002, p. 2). This show Lincoln was not only recognized by the people as their president but also as a mentor of the generation. He symbolizes a new dawn or era in American history, where people are free from slavery.

In the last lines, the speaker is in self-denial concerning the death of Lincoln, he even says it is a dream. In the last line, “You have fallen cold and dead” (Hennessey, 2001, p. 1), it qualifies the speaker state of disbelief concerning the president’s death. He even assumes the president could hear him by talking to his corpse, later it sinks into his mind the president has crossed over to the other world.

His death is what the imagery emphasizes in the last stanza. The speaker describes him as still with pale lips, having no pulse, and he could not feel his arms. This creates a vivid description of a dead body, the narrator speaks from a third persona rather from a first persona as with stanza one and two.

He talks of the population enjoying the newfound freedom from slavery while he suffers the loss from the death of the president, which adds irony to the poem. As the poem finishes, he acknowledges the president is indeed dead, but he continues to mourn (, 1997, p. 1). Despite the reality of the president being dead, it is clear many are still to come to terms with his death.

The pain and anguish the American population felt after President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination were unbearable. It is clear from the poem that it is still hard for them to accept the loss of their hero. The beauty of the poem can be attributed to the vivid expression made possible by the use of symbolism and imagery in the poem.


The essay analyzes imagery and symbolism in the poems and answers significant questions such as “Who Does the Captain Symbolize in O Captain, My Captain?” The poem is an elegy. It has been used to vividly describe the scenario in America slightly before and after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, who was the president at that time. From the poem, we get a vivid picture of the people’s perception towards their president and also his character.

It is clear from the poem the president was a man of the people, and he was wholly accepted and adored by the majority of the citizens. He represented the people and spoke the people’s language, expressing their views and ideas. Genuinely was the president in representing the people’s concerns who had elected him into office.

Reference List

Hennessey, M. (2001). O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman. Web.

Trinh, H. (2002). Literary analysis: O Captain, My Captain, by Walt Whitman. Web.

Whitman, W. (1997). O Captain. My Captain. Academy of American Poets. Web.

Whitman, W. (2006). O Captain. My Captain. Analysis. Web.

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