Authors apply numerous literary devices to their works because they hope these devices will engage their reader as well as convey an underlying message. The use of symbolism as a literary device is commonly used in literature. According to The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms, a symbol is an entity that can stand by itself in a story, but is often meant to represent a larger and more abstract idea, attitude or practice (Murfin and Ray 504). In Walt
Whitman’s elegiac poem, “O Captain! My Captain!,” Whitman utilizes symbolism in order to transmit his underlying message regarding President Lincoln as the captain of the United States.
Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” was published in November 1865, following the end of the Civil War and the assassination of President Lincoln (“O Captain!”). Once the publication date is known, a reader may more quickly realize that many of Whitman’s lines are meant to symbolize post- Civil War United States. In the first line of the poem, the reader is reintroduced to the title of the poem, “O Captain! My Captain!” (Whitman). When alone the word captain can refer to the leader or head supervisor of a ship, but in the text of the poem captain actually symbolizes President Lincoln as the leader of the United States. Lincoln and the
Union had just prevailed over the Confederate Army in the deadly Civil War; Whitman indicates the Union victory in the line “our fearful trip is done, The ship has weather’d every rack” (Whitman). Also in this line, Whitman uses “ship” as a symbol for the United States
(Whitman). Further in the poem Whitman states that “the prize we sought is won” which is symbolic for the ending of slavery and the unification of the North and South (Whitman).
In the last somber stanza of the poem, the grief stricken Whitman writes, “My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still” (Whitman). Whitman in the second stanza hoped this
was a “dream,” but now he realizes that the “Captain” has died (Whitman). The pale and still lips clearly symbolize Lincoln’s death in this extended metaphor. Also, the idea that the “Captain does not answer” symbolizes that the country cries out to Lincoln with joy and jubilation, but