O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
                         But O heart! heart! heart!
                            O the bleeding drops of red,
                               Where on the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

These eight lines open the poem and form its first full stanza. This stanza has two main functions. The first function is to set the scene and establish the poem’s extended metaphor of the ship of state. The speaker is aboard a ship that’s sailing back into port after a long ocean journey, but his captain has died before the ship managed to dock. This tragedy is a metaphor for the untimely death of President Abraham Lincoln, who was assassinated just five days after the Confederacy surrendered and the Union won the Civil War. The second function of this stanza is more psychological in nature. That is, it establishes the emotional tension that stands at the heart of the poem. In the first half of the stanza, the speaker celebrates the end of a harrowing voyage and notes “the people all exulting” along the shore. Contrasting with these images of victory of jubilation, the stanza’s second half turns to the speaker’s emotional devastation at the death of his captain. This turn from celebration to mourning is marked by the speaker’s grievous and pained cry, “O heart! heart! heart!”

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning

In lines 9–12, the speaker addresses his captain directly with the second-person pronoun “you,” encouraging the man to get up and respond to the sounds of jubilation. The speaker’s repeated use of “you” is an example of a figure of speech known as apostrophe, which involves a direct and explicit address, often to an absent person. This example of apostrophe is especially powerful, given that the speaker is addressing a man who is at once present and absent. That is, his captain’s body is present, but the man himself has died. Thus, when the speaker addresses his dead captain and commands him to “rise up,” we readers sense that he’s experiencing a form of denial. He doesn’t want to believe that his beloved captain is gone, and so he begs the man to respond to the celebratory mood.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,
My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will

In lines 17–18, the speaker moves from denial to acceptance. As he looks at his captain and finds neither warmth nor a pulse, he fully comprehends that the man has died. Aside from marking the speaker’s acceptance of his captain’s death, these lines also introduce a degree of intimacy between the two men. The image implied here is that of the speaker either crouched or seated on the deck of the ship, cradling his captain’s head, and minutely examining his features for signs of life. The proximity implied in this passage, along with the care the speaker shows for his captain’s body, demonstrates a degree of care that borders on love. And indeed, the speaker addresses his captain as “My father,” indicating that his affection is like that which a son feels for his father.

                         Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
                            But I with mournful tread,
                               Walk the deck my Captain lies,
                                  Fallen cold and dead.

The final lines of the poem (21–24) find the speaker in a more stable emotional state, having fully accepted the passing of his beloved captain. He also seems less perturbed by the tension between the crowd’s celebratory atmosphere and his own mournful mood. Indeed, he deliberately compartmentalizes these contradictory temperaments. He declares that the crowds on the shore should continue to “exult” and “ring,” even as he commits to maintaining his own “mournful tread.” The speaker indicates the finality of his acceptance and the resoluteness of his commitment to mourning with the final line, which describes his captain as “Fallen cold and dead.” It’s important to note that this line has, in fact, concluded all three of the poem’s stanzas. As such, it forms an example of a rhetorical device known as epistrophe (eh-PISS-truh-fee), which involves repeating the same words at the end of successive clauses, sentences, or verses.