Denotation/Connotation and Use of Metaphor in Walt Whitman’s Poem “O Captain! My Captain!”

-Anup Joshi
Denotation/Connotation and Use of Metaphor in Walt Whitman’s Poem “O Captain! My Captain!”

            Words have two layers of meanings: denotative and connotative. According to Carter et al, “The dictionary definition of a word is its denotation” (102) whereas “The personal or emotional meaning that a word may carry is its connotation” (102). Denotation is the primary meaning of any word and usually has straightforward implication. The denotation of a word can be easily explored by searching the word in dictionary. Such meaning is fixed and mostly universal in nature. But connotation carries secondary meaning and is deployed by user of the respective language. Connotative meaning can be affected by the context and the culture of the person. It is understood out of convention and fixed connotation of a word cannot be explored in any dictionary or book. Similarly, metaphor is the comparison between two words from two different semantic field in order to create new and broader meaning. As Abrams puts it, in a metaphor, “a word or expression that in literal usage denotes one kind of thing is applied to a distinctly different kind of thing, without asserting a comparison” (102). Unlike simile, metaphor is a direct comparison and does not use a comparative term like ‘like’ or ‘as’.  Metaphors contribute in providing the broader meaning to any text. This paper explores denotation/connotation, use of metaphor and how they constitute meaning in Walt Whitman’s poem “O Captain! My Captain!”.  
            Published as an elegy to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of America, in 1865, the poem honors the president as “my captain” (1) and glorifies his deeds. The poem “O Captain! My Captain” (1) uses extended metaphor. Lincoln is compared to the Captain of the Ship and Ship is further compared with the United States of America. The word “Captain” literally denotes the person in command of the ship or a group, and connotes powerful and the supreme leader with bigger responsibilities. The poem does not mention Lincoln in any part of the poem. If the poem is read literally, it is just a poem about a captain who successfully brings the ship to the harbor and dies himself. But when we seek the secondary, connotative meaning of the poem, then we can understand the poem as an honor to Lincoln and how he drove America to the shore of freedom and democracy.
            As Carter et al asserts, “Some words carry strong connotations, and those connotations are generally agreed on by users of the language. Such words are often described as ‘loaded’. Loaded words have strong negative or positive connotations, and can have powerful emotional impact” (102). In the poem, we can find many loaded words with strong connotations. “bleeding” (6), “fallen cold and dead” (8). “pale” and “still” (17) have strong negative connotation. They all refer to the death of the Captain. The poet uses these words to imply that the captain is no more alive. Similarly, words like “won” (2), “rise” (10), “bouquets” (11), “ribbon” (11), “safe” and “sound”, “done” (19) have positive connotation. These words glorify the deeds of the captain. The poet asserts that voyage of the ship has been successful as a result of the captain’s efforts. These words irrespective of the context, usually are loaded with the similar connotations. But some words have variable connotation. “Captain” can also be used sometime to refer to the despotic, cruel person. In the line “O the bleeding drops of red” (6), red refers to the color of blood flowing from the body of the captain. Red, here connotes death. But in some other contexts, ‘red’ can also have positive connotations.
            Unlike connotative meaning, denotative meaning is fixed, narrow and does not provide broader meaning to the poem like connotation does. “rise up” (10) connotes the speaker’s wish to see Lincoln alive. But if we only consider its denotative implication which simply means to lift or move to a higher position, the message of the poem becomes restrained. In literary texts, connotative meaning is much more evoked among readers. The readers associate meaning of any word with the broader and referential meaning. If they go through the denotative implication of the text only, the understanding becomes weak. So, they are provoked to jump to the secondary meaning for the higher level of understanding. Writers also consciously use words to connote intense emotional meaning on their writings.
             The poem uses many metaphors to provide the message more explicitly. I.A. Richards defines vehicle and tenor in metaphor. Tenor is the object which is compared in any text and the object which compares tenor is vehicle. As Richards puts it, “in many of the most important uses of metaphor, the co-presence of the vehicle and the tenor results in a meaning (to be clearly distinguished from the tenor) which is not attainable without their interaction” (56). The poet mostly uses submerged metaphors in which tenor is hidden. “ship” is the metaphor for America. But America is not mentioned throughout the poem. Civil war of America is compared with “fearful trip” (1) and “voyage” (19). The war which end at the cost of more than half million life, was actually fearful. By saying “the port is near” (3), the poet asserts that freedom and the goal/destination of the sailors (people) is near. Here ‘port’ is the metaphor for destination. The poet claims that Lincoln has brought people close to freedom. When he says “But O heart! Heart! Heart!” (5), heart is the metaphor for the life of the Captain. It comes to represent his whole body. The poet appeals heart not to leave the “little spot where on the dock my captain lies” (5, 6). He wants the captain to stay alive. “Flag” (10) is the metaphor for nationality. By waving the flag, Lincoln is taken as the patriotic icon. Furthermore, He compares Lincoln with captain in earlier lines and later he calls him “my father” (17). By comparing with father, Whitman alludes that Lincoln is the father of the nation and is as beloved and as respected as his own father. His departure is the departure of a father for the whole nation. His death is no ordinary death. By this comparison, the position and glory of Lincoln is ascended to a higher ground.
            Use of synecdoche is also apparent in the poem. Synecdoche is another literary device which uses part of the object to represent the whole. “While follow eyes the steady keel” (4). Here, eyes are used to refer to the people. Similarly, keel is used to refer to the whole boat. “shores” (11) refer to the whole land, the land of the United States of America. “heart” (5) is used to refer to the whole person. By using synecdoche, the poet is successful in strengthening his broader-sense message in miniature form.
            The poet’s appealing use of language towards connotative meaning has made the poem much powerful and inclusive. When he uses the word “flag”, it is not only a small, insignificant piece of cloth. Flag connotes nationality, patriotism and under its banner, national unity is strong. “people” (3) and “crowding” (11), connotate not a small mass of people, but rather the whole group of national citizens. These words carry strong positive connotations. The word “father” (18) used to address Abraham Lincoln also has similar strong connotation. It refers to someone whom everyone follows, who is respectable and the guardian of all the children. “bouquets” and ribbon’d wreaths” (11) also have positive connotation. They connote merriment among people as the boat is anchored ashore which means that the Captain, Lincoln has made the country “safe” (19). When the poet says the captain’s ship as the “victor ship” (19), victor, here refers to the victory over slavery and its abolition from the USA. At the last line of every octave, “fallen cold and dead” (8) is repeated in the poem. Repetition is done to valorize the certain words and the meanings associated with these words. “fallen”, “cold”, and “dead” all connote to the death of the person. As Abrams puts it, “connotations…evoked depends on the word the way is used in a particular context” (46). If the context was different like the falling of an old building, the word “fallen” might connote positive meaning as falling of old building is the symbol for creation of something new. But here the context is different and words have contextual meanings. These words, coming repeatedly in the poem time and again makes reader conscious of the death of the Caption which is the major concern of the elegy poem.
            To conclude, denotation/connotation and use of metaphors provide new and broader prospect in creation of meaning in any text. The poem “O Captain! My Captain” mostly relies on metaphors and the words that carry strong connotation, to powerfully convey its message to readers. By the use of strong connotative words, the personal emotive side of the reader is appealed intensely. Metaphors by comparing certain things with the things from different semantic field, make the things that are compared, much broader in sense. Whitman is successful to expose his tribute to late president Lincoln, and his love towards the nation metaphorically in the poem. Even though he does not use lucid words like “president”, “country”, “Abraham Lincold”, “America” et cetera, by using words like “father”, “captain”, “ship”, “shore” he metaphorically replaces the former words. My miniature representation of a ship and its captain, the poet metaphorically addresses his country and president in broader sense. Death of a person is never a happy incident. Connotation of death is gloomy atmosphere and the mourning. In spite of sad death of the Captain in the poem, the poet utilizes this death to symbolically weave threads of the national unity. So, the poem has both the negative and positive connotation. The death is a negative connotation, but the patriotism, unity, victory that evolves form the Captain is positive. The glorification of the president binds all the concerned citizens of the country in a single bond of American nationality. Thus, lexical selection is the foremost factor in contributing meaning. Denotation/connotation and use of metaphor not only serve for the aesthetic purpose of the text, they also partake in creating new and multiple meanings in a text.
Works Cited
Abrams, M. H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. Boston: Thompson Wadsworth, 2005. Print
Carter, Ronald, et al. “Words and Things”. Working with Texts. 2nd ed. London: Routledge,
2001. 102-104. Print.
Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. London: Oxford University Press, 1936). Pdf.
Whitman, Walt. “O Captain! My Captain!”. 100 best-Loved Poems. Ed. Smith, Philip. New
York: Dover Publications, 1995. 66-67. Print.

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About Anup Joshi

Anup Joshi is an emerging young writer searching for space in Nepali literature. He writes poems, stories and lyrics for songs. As a student of English literature he loves reading books. He is also a passionate photographer and enjoys travelling.
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