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The theme of a journey is a common metaphor used in poetry. This is no exception in two poems by famous poets of the 19th century: Walt Whitman and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. In Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!” from his collection Leaves of Grass, he writes of the sorrow over a fallen ship captain coming into the home harbor. Lord Tennyson’s “Crossing the Bar” expresses the hopes on the departure of a journey. Both poems use the metaphor of a boat’s trip over the sea as a spiritual journey to death. The poems have many similarities, but also differences that give character to each poem. Each poem is shaped by its imagery, speaker, and emotional invocation. Without such literary devices, the poems would not have such an emotional impact of the reader.
Both “O Captain! My Captain!” and “Crossing the Bar” are similar in their themes of a journey. In Whitman’s poem, the crew of a ship is returning to their home port from a long journey. All is finished, with the purpose of the expedition completed, except their captain has fallen dead on the deck of the ship. The speaker describes the festivities on the shore as the boat arrives, the joyous townspeople celebrating the return of their captain. This contrasts the sullen mood on the ship, where the crew deeply mourns the loss of their captain. In “Crossing the Bar,” the speaker is about to depart on a journey, one from which he expects not to return. He hopes that his journey will not be difficult, especially when he first sets out. He pleads to the reader not to mourn or protest against his departure. Although these are both journeys, there are key differences. Whitman addresses the mournful return from a voyage, while Lord Tennyson writes of a final exit from a life. While the speaker in “O Captain!” appeals that his captain be not dead, the speaker in “Crossing the Bar!” implores almost the complete opposite. He says in lines 11-12 “And may there be no sadness of farewell,\When I embark;” He is content in leaving the life he has known, to go on this final journey to see his “Pilot.
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Each poem also uses different forms of imagery to develop its theme. “Crossing the Bar” invokes many visual images of the ocean and waves. The speaker begins the poem with an image of dusk, with a “evening star” (line 1) and continues throughout the poem to describe many more visual images. Another major form of imagery used is auditory, or sound, imagery. This is common in such phrases as “one clear call for me” (line 2) or “And may there be no sadness of farewell” (line 11). In addition, Tennyson uses motion as another way to enhance the theme of a journey, by the speaker’s lines on his departure.
Walt Whitman uses very similar imagery in his poem. Much of the imagery is visual, for instance with “O the bleeding drops of red,/ Where on the deck my Captain lies, / Fallen cold and dead.” Also in those lines is kinetic imagery, or the imagery of touch. “Fallen cold and dead” or “My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will” are good examples of kinetic images. Throughout the poem, the speaker tells of the cheerful crowds and invokes images of the rowdy townspeople. He contrasts this with the solemn descriptions of the crew and their “fallen” captain. (line 16) When the reader or listener realizes the subject of the poem, Whitman’s friend and leader President Abraham Lincoln, it makes the poem even more emotional and somber. The journey of this ship is a metaphor for the long fight and time of war between the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War, which Lincoln led. After a complete victory, with the “journey” almost completed, Lincoln was assassinated weeks after the war ended. The Union, which had depended upon the leadership of this great man for 5 long years, now felt the personal loss of a friend and compatriot. The same is true for the poem, with the crew feeling the deep sorrow of losing their brave captain, just as the journey is about to come to an end. This gives the poem a very sad tone and theme.
These two poems both involve a journey. However, the aspects and literary techniques of the journeys are very different. Both address death, but “O Captain! My Captain!” conveys the sadness of the loss to the reader, while “Crossing the Bar” speaks more of the acceptance and willingness of one’s own death.
Alfred, Lord Tennyson. “Crossing the Bar.” Demeter and other poems 1889. 30 Oct. 2002 < http://www.emule.com/poetry/?page=poem&poem=2042>.
Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain!” Leaves of Grass 1867. 30 Oct. 2002