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 South grieves her defeat, and the North mourns the loss of a leader (Line 22).
Although Tennyson also employs the man at sea as his dominating metaphor, his narrator has just begun his journey, while Whitman’s was at the end of his journey. The journey at sea, then, proves to be an allegory in and of itself. On the superficial level, the narrator discusses the perils that await him at sea and his hopes of meeting his “Pilot” (Tennyson, Line 15). However, on the thematic level, the journey at sea is a metaphor for embracing the inevitability of death with courage. Other allegorical elements of the poem can be found within Tennyson’s imagery; the “one clear call” is essentially the writings on the wall for the narrator’s death (Line 2). Additionally, the reference to the “Pilot,” which is an allusion to God, creates an underlying spirituality of the poem with the diction of “hope” conveying the narrator’s feelings of optimism (Line 15).
Both Whitman and Tennyson use an element of repetition and a regular rhyme scheme in order to create an emphasis on their respective themes. In “O Captain! My Captain!” Whitman structures the poem in two subsections in each stanza – a main section that creates a general mood and a...