The poem is an elegy to the speaker s recently deceased Captain , at once celebrating the safe and successful return of their ship and mourning the loss of its great leader. In the first stanza, the speaker expresses his relief that the ship has reached its home port at last and describes hearing people cheering. Despite the celebrations on land and the successful voyage, the speaker reveals that his Captain s dead body is lying on the deck. In the second stanza, the speaker implores the Captain to rise up and hear the bells, wishing the dead man could witness the elation. Everyone adored the captain, and the speaker admits that his death feels like a horrible dream. In the final stanza, the speaker juxtaposes his feelings of mourning and pride.
Whitman wrote this poem shortly after President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. It is an extended metaphor intended to memorialize Lincoln s life and work. The Captain represents the assassinated president; the ship represents the war-weathered nation following the Civil War; the prize won represents the salvaged union. The speaker, torn between relief and despair, captures America s confusion at the end of the Civil War. It was a time of many conflicting sentiments, and Whitman immortalizes this sense of uncertainty in O Captain! My Captain!