"O Captain! My Captain!"


Red is the color of death and evil; the color of love and passion.  The color red is used in diverse situations and carries different meanings depending on the context.  In Walt Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" which describes the end of the Civil War and Lincoln's death, red is used as a synecdoche for blood.  However, the symbolic choice in using the "bleeding drops of red," instead of the drops of blood adds to the poem more layers of meaning (l.6).  The use of the word red instead of blood is a decision that lends ulterior meanings of love and death to the rest of the poem.

The word red in the first stanza literally means blood, Lincoln's blood, spilt upon the deck of the ship.  Blood is the life force of human beings.  It pulses through the veins of every person and carries oxygen to all parts of the body.  Without blood, human beings cannot survive.  When blood is spilled, one automatically thinks of death, carnage and destruction.  Thoughts of death lead to the afterlife and more specifically the Christina belief in heaven and hell.  Heaven, the reward for believers, is associated with the color white and more often than not, going to heaven makes death bearable.  However, hell is a red, fiery furnace.  Death especially when blood is spilt, in this society, carries negative connotations so it is no wonder that both blood and hell are the same color.  The red of blood and death are closely related to the afterlife that follows, be it for the dead or the perpetrator of the crime. 

Though the word red replaces blood, it also carries connotations of love and passion.  This poem is not all about the death of Lincoln.  More importantly, it discusses the reactions of the people and the speaker himself.  All of these people love and greatly respect their Captain.  Both the speaker and the Captain also have a vast love for their country.  They embark together on a terrible journey, a quest to keep America united.  The American people and the soldiers sacrifice so much: money, time, brothers and fathers, and countless lives.  Lincoln, as president, is the embodiment of the spirit of America.  He is their leader and the person they all look to.  The people's love for their country translates to a respect and esteem for Lincoln as well.  After the country they love finally emerges from a devastating war that has brought death to every household, they are struck another blow by the death of their captain.  The death of Lincoln and the love and grief for their leader and their country are aptly described by that single word, red.  The color red can mean both love and death but it appears that these two ideas go hand in hand.


The word red has more than just symbolic meaning in this poem.  The use of rhyming words and rhythm also contribute to the intrigue.  In each stanza, the sixth and the eighth line all rhyme with the word red.  In this manner, the reader discovers the circumstances of Lincoln's death.  In line six, red starts off this sequence of rhymes, in this case meaning blood.  Two lines later, the word dead is used to describe the Captain.  The reader by now has surmised that the Captain must have died through some violent means involving the spilling of blood.  In the second stanza, there is the line, "This arm beneath your head," which implies further that the manner in which Lincoln was killed involved a wound to the head (l.14).  The word arm, at first glance, appears to be the speaker using his arm to pillow his Captain's head and support him from the cold deck.  However, it also can be interpreted to mean a firearm or a gun.  In the last stanza, the narrator, "with mournful tread, [walks] the deck [his] Captain lies," (ll.22-23).  To "tread the boards" is an idiom meaning to "act on stage," and literally, the narrator is walking on the boards of the ship's deck.  This is the final detail, that Lincoln was assassinated during a play, which contributes to the overall picture of how Lincoln was killed.  The word red and subsequent rhyming words are used very significantly to communicate to the reader pertinent information about Lincoln's assassination.


The words chosen in Whitman's "O Captain! My Captain!" are all there for a reason.  When first reading the poem, one often glosses over the significance of little words.  Red, often times, is one of the very words that pass unnoticed.  Its first meaning, that of blood, only scratches the surface.  Red also symbolizes love and a stop to things.  This poem describes to the reader the untimely end of Lincoln's life and the conclusion of the Civil War.  In our everyday lives, we see objects that reflect the many symbolic meanings of the color red.  Everywhere we go we are confronted with red roses and stop signs, blood and fire.  This poem taps into our everyday experiences and commonplace knowledge to further layer the meanings.  The use of red is just an example of how one word can affect the interpretation of the entire poem.




The organization of this essay is straightforward and easy to follow.  I began with my introduction that briefly summarizes the poem and the use of the color red.  I state my thesis as the last sentence in my introduction.  I organized my paragraphs according to my own thought processes.  The first paragraph is the surface interpretation of the color red: blood.  This is the first idea that I came up with when I read the poem and so it is logical to discuss this aspect first.  Then I go a bit further to discuss other symbolic meanings of the color red.  The first two body paragraphs are very much related to each other, which is why I placed them together.  The final body paragraph discusses the color red but it wholly unrelated to its symbolism.  Instead it focuses on the sound of the word and the rhymes used in the poem.  This paragraph is extremely important but separate from the symbolism idea so I placed it last of the body paragraphs.  Within this paragraph, I discussed each rhyme separately in the order that it appears in the poem.  The conclusion briefly restates the thesis and the main points discussed in the essay.  I added a couple of other ideas and ended the essay.



The voice of this essay is not particularly unique or special.  The tone is very bland.  The reader can probably tell that I do not have very strong feelings about the topic.  It is written in a formal and elevated style as is appropriate for this situation.  As the writer, I am very detached and objective.  The words I chose are ones that I felt best fit in the situation.  I did not choose my words with a specific tone in mind.  Rather whatever worked to convey my ideas.  The sentence fluency is generally something I do not pay to much attention to unless there is a specific problem.  When I read through and edit my essay I try to notice whether there are any sentence fluency problems, like too many choppy sentences near each other or run-ons.  Otherwise, I really did not have anything in mind for the voice.

Like we talked about in class, voice is not one of those things that can be fixed, in the technical sense of the word.  All other aspects can be worked on and improved through revising and getting help from others.  Voice, however, often comes from within.  Some have natural talent, while others just have a very boring voice.  I find myself somewhere in the middle.  My voice is nothing spectacular, but it has always served its purpose.  Reading and retaining the voice of great writers will help, but that is more of a long-term project.  For this essay at this moment, I feel that everything is very bland.  There is no life, no spark to the piece.  I need to add something that will make it more interesting to the reader and grab their attention.  The tone is very weak and maybe if I could show how I feel about the poem as a whole rather than this particular topic I could be more interested.