Question: Critical appreciation of the poem “O Captain My Captain.” Discuss O Captain My Captain as an elegy.
The word ‘elegy’ comes from the Greek word ‘elegos’ meaning ‘song’. Elegy is a poem or song that expresses sadness, especially for someone who has died. “O Captain! My Captain!” is a short poem in the form of an elegy written by American poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892). The poem has been written focusing on the death of the 16th president of America Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865).
The Function of Elegy
Elegy is one of the richest forms of literature because it has the power to express emotions that deeply affect people. The most powerful tool in elegiac poetry is to rely on the memory of those who no longer live. Most of the poets who have written elegiac poems are obviously amazed at the weakness of man and how the world at one stage completely forgets about the dead. So, from a functional point of view, “O Captain! My Captain! is a perfect paradigm of an elegiac poem because it commemorates the death of Abraham Lincoln who was the winner of the civil war (1861-1865) that was fought to abolish the slavery system from the history of America.
Creating a gloomy atmosphere
The elegiac poets create a dusky atmosphere at the outset of the poem so that mourn can be expressed deeply. Walt Whitman has created a sorrowful atmosphere in the poem. In grieving for the death of the beloved leader, the poet at first looks at the shore where the audience is delighted and then he looks at the deck of the ship where the dead body of his beloved leader is lying down.
“Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
At the first level, the speaker expresses relief that at last the ship has reached its own port and the audience is delighted. Despite the celebrations on a successful journey, the speaker reveals that his captain’s body is lying on the deck. Such blending of joy and mourn is purely elegiac.
Though the poem has been written in an unusual rhyme pattern, it is not devoid of lyrical quality. As an innovative writer and poet, Whitman has a unique capacity to produce lyricism even in blank verse. So, the poem “O Captain! My Captain! is a melodious one for which we can cite some lines from the poem.
“Here Captain! dear father!
This arm beneath your head!
It is some dream that on the deck,
You’ve fallen cold and dead.”
Elegant language and structure
One of the most important features of elegy is the elegant language and strong structure. The language used in the poem is very rich such as captain, heart, exult, and so on. The poem has a cyclic structure. It can be divided into three cycles or levels. At the first level, the speaker expresses relief that at last the ship has reached its own port and the audience is delighted. At the second level, the speaker requests the captain to “get up and hear the bell”, but the dead leader cannot hear the speaker’s calling and rejoice in the winning moment. In the final stage, the speaker spreads his feelings of sadness and pride.
Questions about the nature of life, death, and immortality of the soul
The elegy raises questions regarding the nature of life, death, and immortality of the soul. The poem suggests the American to lead a praiseworthy and sacrificial life like Abraham Lincoln but the type of death that has snatched away the life of the beloved leader must be prevented though his soul is immortal. Thus, this poem is an elegy.
The most significant feature of the elegy is consolation by the end of the poem. We can quote here from the poem.
“Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.”
Thus, the poet provides a note of consolation by spreading his feelings of sadness and pride.
Generally, elegies are identified by different types of features. The poem “O Captain! My Captain! fulfills the fundamental characteristics of elegy. The above thesis-based negotiation proves it.