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O Captain! My Captain! by Walt Whitman

Teacher Guide by Bridget Baudinet

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Student Activities for O Captain! My Captain! Include:

Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “O Captain! My Captain!” is one of the best-known American poems of the 19th century. The poem is an elegy, memorializing Abraham Lincoln, America’s sixteenth president. Although Lincoln is never directly named in the poem, he is alluded to through the poem’s extended metaphor. Students reading the poem will learn to decipher the figurative language throughout in order to understand the poem’s literal meaning. In addition to learning about elegy and extended metaphor, students will be able to analyze Whitman’s sound devices, diction, and unique poetic structure.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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Background Information

Although, on the surface, “O Captain! My Captain!” depicts the death of a ship’s captain, it uses an extended metaphor to describe Lincoln’s passing and its effect on his supporters. Students may benefit from discussion of the term extended metaphor before beginning the poem. The poem also contains a few nautical terms that students might need defined, and younger students may need a reminder about the use of poetic contractions in words such as “ribbon’d” and “weather’d”.

Extended Metaphor

An extended metaphor is a comparison between two unlike things that lasts throughout multiple sentences of prose or lines of poetry. As the metaphor is extended, various aspects of the two things being compared are addressed. An extended metaphor generally makes a broad comparison and then grows more specific, comparing smaller attributes associated with the topic.

In Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken,” for example, the road is a metaphor for life. As the poem continues, the fork in the road represents a choice in life, the new-fallen leaves represent fresh opportunities, and so on. The road is the general topic of comparison, but the fork and the leaves are the more specific aspects explored. To understand an extended metaphor, readers must understand the intended meaning behind each smaller comparison within the main metaphor. Extended metaphors are sometimes referred to as conceits, particularly in the complex poetry of the 17th century.

The American Civil War

To properly understand this poem, students must also be aware of the basics of the American Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. During the Civil War (1861-1865), Northern states fought against Southern states in response to the South’s attempt to secede from the union. While slavery was at the heart of the South’s desire for independence, Whitman’s poem does not mention this issue. Instead, it focuses on one of the main reasons Northerners fought in the war: the preservation of the union. In 1861, the United States had only been in existence for about 85 years. Much of the world still regarded America as the “great experiment” in democracy. For the nation to split into two so soon after its creation would signal a failed experiment and national humiliation. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman’s depiction of Lincoln’s heroism is based on Lincoln’s success in preserving the union, or bringing the “ship of state” safely to port.

After a bloody war, which cost the lives of over 620,000 men, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered on April 9, 1865. Just six days later on April 15, 1865, Lincoln was shot by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth. This tragic assassination was a shock to the already struggling nation. Walt Whitman, a Northerner and supporter of Lincoln, was devastated by the president’s death. His poem, written in first person, shows a very personal reaction to the tragedy. This personal perspective puts the reader in the position of a witness to the tragedy and strengthens the emotional appeal of the poem.


Essential Questions for “O Captain! My Captain!”

  1. What is an extended metaphor?
  2. How does this poem relate to the events of its time?
  3. How do Whitman’s poetic devices help convey the speaker’s emotions and message?
  4. What can this poem teach us about heroes?

O Captain! My Captain! Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Extended Metaphor Analysis

This activity allows students to break down the various components of the extended metaphor in ”O Captain! My Captain!”. The poem cannot be fully understood unless students are aware of the historical background represented by the captain, his ship, and their fates. As students read through stanza by stanza, they will need to identify the figurative meanings behind Whitman’s word choices. Students should be able to cite a line from the poem and understand its literal meaning (as it pertains to the captain and his ship) and its figurative meaning (as it pertains to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War). With this storyboard, students can demonstrate a solid understanding of the text and its metaphorical significance, which will provide a foundation for deeper analysis of the poem.

O Captain! My Captain! Extended Metaphor

TextMetaphorical Meaning
  • “Captain”
The captain is a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln, president of the United States from 1861-1865. Lincoln was like a captain because he was the leader of the country in the same way that a captain leads his crew. Significantly, Whitman always capitalizes this word, indicating that it refers to a specific captain and one who is highly respected.
  • “Ship”
  • “vessel”
  • “steady keel”
The ship refers to the nation, or the United States. The term "ship of state" is often used to refer to a nation's government.
  • “Weather’d every rack”
  • “fearful trip”
The rack, or storm, signifies the Civil War between the Union and Confederacy which threatened to destroy the United States and tear it in two. "Weathering" the storm means that the United States has survived despite the war, or “fearful trip”.
  • “Prize we sought is won”
  • “port is near”
  • “anchor’d safe and sound”
  • “its voyage closed and done”
All of these lines refer to the Union’s victory. The Confederacy surrendered on April 9, 1865. This meant that the southern states would remain in the union and the United States would continue to exist as a nation.
  • “On the deck my captain lies/ Fallen cold and dead”
  • “bleeding drops of red”
The captain's death refers to the assassination of Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth on April 15, 1865. He was shot while at the theater and died a few hours later.

Oh Captain! My Captain! Extended Metaphor

Example

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O Captain My Captain Analysis - TWIST


Copy Assignment



Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that examine Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, and Theme. This activity is referred to with the acronym “TWIST”. In a TWIST, students focus on a particular paragraph or a few pages, to look deeper at the author’s meaning.



Using the full text of “O Captain! My Captain!” or just a single stanza, students can depict, describe, and analyze the way poetic elements work together to create a central message or theme.


TWIST Example for O Captain! My Captain!


T

TONE

Distressed: The speaker struggles to process the death of his hero. He is overcome with sorrow and shock.
W

WORD CHOICE

O heart! heart! heart!, bleeding, cold, dead, pale, still, no pulse, mournful tread, fallen
I

IMAGERY

“O the bleeding drops of red..."
S

STYLE

Each eight-line stanza is split into two distinct parts. The first four lines are long and praise Lincoln's achievements. The last four lines are short and give agitated descriptions of Lincoln's dying moments.
T

THEME

The speaker's distress is made greater by the heroism of the captain. This conveys a theme about honoring our fallen heroes.

O Captain! My Captain! TWIST

Example

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Perform a TWIST analysis of a selection from “O Captain! My Captain!”. Remember that TWIST stands for Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, Theme.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Choose any combination of scenes, characters, items, and text to represent each letter of TWIST.
  3. Write a few sentences describing the importance or meaning of the images.
  4. Finalize images, edit, and proofread your work.
  5. Save and submit storyboard to assignment.



TWIST Template

Example

(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





Copy Assignment

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O Captain! My Captain! Poetry Comparison

Students can deepen their understanding of a poem by comparing it to other poems. The process of comparing allows students to use analytical skills and higher order thinking. In this storyboard activity, students will compare “O Captain! My Captain!” to A. E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young.” Both poems address heroes dying at the height of their glory, but convey different emotions and themes. Have students compare or contrast the poems’ basic events, characters, images, structure, tones, or figurative language. By pointing out similarities and/or differences between these elements, students can then identify the differing themes of the two poems.

You can also have students compare the poem to selections from other genres, including artwork, film, speeches, short stories, and novels.


Other suggestions for comparison:

  • “Elegy for J.F.K.” or “Funeral Blues” by W. H. Auden
  • Brutus’ funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar
  • Photographs of President Lincoln or President Kennedy’s funerals

Poetry Comparison Example for O Captain! My Captain!



EVENTS IMPORTANT IMAGES THEMES
O Captain! My Captain! The nation is in the midst of celebrating Lincoln's Civil War victory when he dies. Negative images: pale, cold body and drops of blood Death is tragic: "O heart! heart! heart!"
To an Athlete Dying Young The townspeople are in the midst of celebrating the athlete's victory when he dies. Positive images: unwithered laurels and unchallenged cup Death is fortunate: "Now you will not swell the rout/Of lads that wore their honors out"


O Captain! My Captain! Text Comparison

Example

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•   (English) O Captain! My Captain!   •   (Español) ¡Oh Capitán! ¡Mi Capitán!   •   (Français) O Capitaine! Mon Capitaine!   •   (Deutsch) O Hauptmann! Mein Kapitän!   •   (Italiana) O Capitano! Il mio Capitano!   •   (Nederlands) O Kapitein! My Captain!   •   (Português) Ó Capitão! Meu Capitão!   •   (עברית) O קפטן! הקפטן שלי!   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) يا كابتن! قائدي او رباني!   •   (हिन्दी) हे कप्तान! मेरा कप्तान!   •   (ру́сский язы́к) О Капитан! Мой Капитан!   •   (Dansk) O Captain! Min Kaptajn!   •   (Svenska) O Kapten! Min Kapten!   •   (Suomi) O Kapteeni! Minun Kapteeni!   •   (Norsk) O Kaptein! Min Kaptein!   •   (Türkçe) Kaptan! Kaptanım!   •   (Polski) O Kapitanie! Mój Kapitan!   •   (Româna) O, Căpitane! Căpitanul Meu!   •   (Ceština) O Kapitáne! Můj Kapitáne!   •   (Slovenský) Kapitán! Môj Kapitán!   •   (Magyar) Ó Kapitány! De a Kapitány!   •   (Hrvatski) Kapetan! Moj Kapetan!   •   (български) О, Капитане! Мой Капитан!   •   (Lietuvos) O Kapitonas! Mano Kapitonas!   •   (Slovenščina) O Captain! Moj Stotnik!   •   (Latvijas) O Captain! Mans Captain!   •   (eesti) O Kapten! Minu Kapten!