Journey Theme in Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! and Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar

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Journey Theme in Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! and Tennyson’s Crossing the Bar

A man’s journey at sea has always been romanticized as an individualistic struggle against the backdrop of the cruel elements of nature. Paradoxically, though, within that same journey, the sea possesses an innate sense of timelessness that can become a man’s quest for God. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Walt Whitman describes the narrator’s sense of aimlessness at sea after his beloved Captain dies. In Lord Alfred Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar,” the speaker is beckoned by the sea and its soundlessness even though he senses foredoom there. And so, although both Whitman and Tennyson employ a voyage at sea as the predominant image and metaphor within similar structural frameworks, they do differ in how they represent the journey and depict the tone of the poem.

In “O Captain! My Captain!” uses the ship, the voyage at sea, and the Captain, within the poem to describe the mood of the United States in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. The “fearful” voyage at sea, then, is an appropriate metaphor for the arduous Civil War, which has finally ended, but ironically, the Captain of the ship, Abraham Lincoln, has fallen dead (Line 2). Whitman uses extensive imagery to describe the North, awaiting the ship to dock, “exulting,” and “their eager faces turning” (Whitman, Lines 3, 12). But at the same time, there are underlying burdens of grief that the war brings. Whitman describes the postwar era with a pervading irony within the poem; although “the prize we sought is won,” the true reality of the situation reflects a phyrric victory (Line 2). The narrator’s “mournful tread” on the deck of the ship becomes symbolic for the United States, as the Sout...

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...orates the death of the Captain, Tennyson discusses crossing into the realm of the afterlife with a stoic calmness, which ultimately leads a solitary death. However, both poets seem to realize their own mortality and that death is an indestructible force. While Tennyson’s everyday narrator treats “crossing the bar” as another symbolic stage of the human existence, the beloved Captain is ironically unable to defeat it despite what horrors he may have overcome at sea. Death, then, transcends the social divide; no one, from the common man of Tennyson’s poem to a brave, revered Captain, who has survived the perils at sea, can conquer it.

Works Cited

Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Alfred Lord Tennyson: Selected Poems. New York: Penguin

Books , 1992.

Whitman, Walt. Leaves of Grass. 1892 ed. New York: Bantam Books, 1983.

PID 0062


Marlow Engl. 12 Sect. 37
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