America experienced profound changes during the mid 1800s. New technologies and ideas helped the nation grow, while the Civil War ripped the nation apart.
During this tumultuous period, two great American writers captured their ideas in poetry. Their poems give us insight into the time period, as well as universal insight about life. Although polar opposites in personality, Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman created similar poetry. Dickinsons Hope is a Thing with Feathers and Whitmans O Captain! My Captain! share many qualities. “Hope is a Thing with Feathers and O Captain! My Captain! contain a similar scansion.
Both have a predominantly iambic meter. The unaccented beat followed by the accented beat creates a rising meter. Each poem also contains notable exceptions to the iambic meter. In “Hope is a Thing with Feathers, the first line Hope is the thing contains a trochee followed by an iamb.
O Captain! My Captain! contains even more exceptions to the iambic meter. Line 5, But O heart! heart! heart! consists of an imperfect root followed by two spondees, or feet with two equally accented syllables. Both Line 6 O the bleeding drops of red and line 8 Fallen cold and dead have trochaic meters with an imperfect root at the end. The remainder of the poem has an iambic meter until the last two lines: Walk the deck my Captain lies, /Fallen cold and dead. The iambic meter makes the poem rise until the end where the switch to trochaic meter helps emphasize the conclusion of the poem. Along with the irregularities in meter, neither poem has a regular line length or rhyming pattern.
Dickinsons poem contains alternating tetrameters and trimeters, with the exception of the first line, which contains 7 syllables. The poem contains some irregular rhyme; heard in line 5 rhymes with bird in line 7, and Sea in line 10 rhymes with Me in line 12. Whitmans poem contains even more irregular line lengths. The first 4 lines of each stanza vary from 12 to 15 syllables, but the last 4 lines of each stanza vary from 5 to 8 syllables.
Unlike in Dickinsons poem, the rhyming scheme carries throughout the whole poem, although the AABBCDED rhyme pattern contains a few cases of near rhyme. Dickinson and Whitman also use similar poetic devices in “Hope is a Thing with Feathers and O Captain! My Captain! Each poem contains an extended metaphor. In Dickinsons poem, a bird clearly symbolizes hope. The first stanza introduces the bird metaphor: Hope is the thing with feathers–/That perches in the soul. The next lines And sings the tune without the words–/And never stopsat all illustrate the interminable nature of the bird and hope.
The second stanza expands the metaphor by saying And sweetestin the Galeis heard. The birds song, or hope, is the sweetest during a Gale, or troubled times. The first lines in the final stanza Ive heard it in the chillest land–/ And on the strangest Sea describe the bird, or hope, as being everywhere. The last lines Yet, never, in Extremity,/It asked a crumbof Me show the unselfish nature of the bird; hope never asks for anything in return. O Captain! My Captain! contains a more complicated and cryptic extended metaphor. Basically, Abraham Lincoln captains the metaphorical ship of the United States through the Civil War.
The second line The ship has weatherd every rack, the prize we sought is won means the United States survived the tribulation of the Civil War, and the citizens won the prize they sought, unity. Abraham Lincoln lies Fallen cold and dead on the deck as the ship, the United States, nears the safety of the port, national unity. The extended metaphors in each poem create interesting imagery, providing more insight into the authors feelings about the subject. Placing an idea like hope into the bird metaphor allows Dickinson to convey the persevering nature of hope in a more powerful manner than plainly saying hope is persevering.
Each poem uses sound within the extended metaphors. In “Hope is a Thing with Feathers the bird sings the tune without the wordsAnd never stopsat all–. The song of the bird is sweetestin the Gale and is even heard on the chillest land–/And on the strangest Sea. In O Captain! My Captain! bells provide sound.
The bells I hear indicate the proximity of the ship to the port and are a means of exultation: Exult, O shores, and ring O bells! In the second stanza a bugle trills to celebrate the ships homecoming. The description of sounds in each poem contributes to the overall effectiveness of the extended metaphor and of the poem as a whole. Two very different poets, through their poems, substantially affected the evolution of American Literature. Analysis of their works should increase the respect for how much goes into a poem.
Elizabeth Bishop said, poetry is hundreds of things coming together at the right moment. Dickinson and Whitman shared that ability to combine many elements to create great poetry.