Symbolism and imagery are some of the major element of style in poetry. Symbolism element is used to emphasize internalized poetry aspects to describe feeling and thoughts of a poet due to lack of better words to describe them.
It uses an object, an idea, a person or a place to bring out a deeper 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 perspective. It put emphasis on creative speaking or writing, vivid images suggestions or descriptive presentation.
It not only need 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 rich use of imagery and symbolism in passing the message, ideas and the subject of the poem.
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. 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” (Hennessey, 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.
The proceeding lines deliver the captain’s death after the victory of the civil war. 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 death. “Bleeding drops of red” (Whitman, 2006, p. 1) is used to represents the captain wounded heart and the wounds in the captains 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 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, this 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 the American history, where people are free from slavery.
In the last lines the speaker is in a 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 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 emphasis on in the last stanza. The speaker describes him as still with pale lips, having no pulse and he could not feel his arms. This create a vivid description of a dead body, the speaker speak from a third persona rather from a first persona as with stanza one and two.
He talks of the population enjoying the new found freedom from slavery while he suffers the loss from the death of the president. As the poem finishes he acknowledges the president is indeed dead but he continue to mourn (Whitman, 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 assassination was 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 use of symbolism and imagery in the poem.
The poem is an elegy. It has been used to vividly describe the scenario in the 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 perception towards their president and also his character.
It is clear from the poem the president was a man of the people, he was wholly accepted and adored by majority of the citizens. He represented the people and spoke the people’s language, representing their views and ideas. Genuinely was the president in representing the people concerns who had elected him into office.
Hennessey, M. (2001). O Captain! My Captain! By Walt Whitman. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from, http://www.loc.gov/teachers/lyrical/poems/my_captain.html
Trinh, H. (2002). Literary analysis: O Captain, My Captain, by Walt Whitman.
Retrieved July 17, 2010, from, http://www.helium.com/items/213457-literary-analysis-o-captain-my-captain-by-walt-whitman
Whitman, W. (1997). O Captain. My Captain. Academy of American Poets. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from, http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15754
Whitman, W. (2006). O Captain. My Captain. Analysis. Retrieved July 17, 2010, from,