You are on page 1of 8

Stanza I:

Keats describes autumn with a series of specific, concrete, vivid visual images.
The stanza begins with autumn at the peak of fulfillment and continues the
ripening to an almost unbearable intensity. Initially autumn and the sun "load
and bless" by ripening the fruit. But the apples become so numerous that their
weight bends the trees; the gourds "swell," and the hazel nuts "plump." The
danger of being overwhelmed by fertility that has no end is suggested in the
flower and bee images in the last four lines of the stanza. Keats refers to "more"
later flowers "budding" (the -ing form of the word suggests activity that is
ongoing or continuing); the potentially overwhelming number of flowers is
suggested by the repetition "And still more" flowers. The bees cannot handle
this abundance, for their cells are "o'er-brimm'd." In other words, their cells are
not just full, but are over-full or brimming over with honey.

Process or change is also suggested by the reference to Summer in line 11; the
bees have been gathering and storing honey since summer. "Clammy" describes
moisture; its unpleasant connotations are accepted as natural, without
judgment.

Certain sounds recur in the beginning lines--s, m, l. Find the words that contain
these letters; read them aloud and listen. What is the effect of these sounds--
harsh, explosive, or soft? How do they contribute to the effect of the stanza, if
they do?

The final point I wish to make about this stanza is subtle and sophisticated and
will probably interest you only if you like grammar and enjoy studying English:

The first stanza is punctuated as one sentence, and clearly it is one unit. It
is not, however, a complete sentence; it has no verb. By omitting the verb,
Keats focuses on the details of ripening. In the first two and a half lines, the sun
and autumn conspire (suggesting a close working relationship and intention).
From lines 3 to 9, Keats constructs the details using parallelism; the details take
the infinitive form (to plus a verb): "to load and bless," "To bend...and fill," "To
swell...and plump," and "to set." In the last two lines, he uses a subordinate
clause, also called a dependent clause (note the subordinating conjunction
"until"); the subordinate or dependent clause is appropriate because the
oversupply of honey is the result of--or dependent upon--the seemingly
unending supply of flowers.

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza I.


Stanza II

The ongoing ripening of stanza I, which if continued would become


unbearable, has neared completion; this stanza slows down and contains almost
no movement. Autumn, personified as a reaper or a harvester, crosses a brook
and watches a cider press. Otherwise Autumn is listless and even falls asleep.
Some work remains; the furrow is "half-reap'd," the winnowed hair refers to
ripe grain still standing, and apple cider is still being pressed. However, the end
of the cycle is near. The press is squeezing out "the last oozings." Find other
words that indicate slowing down. Notice that Keats describes a reaper who is
not harvesting and who is not turning the press.

Is the personification successful, that is, does nature become a person with a
personality, or does nature remain an abstraction? Is there a sense of depletion,
of things coming to an end? Does the slowing down of the process suggest a
stopping, a dying or death? Does the personification of autumn as a reaper with
a scythe suggest another kind of reaper--the Grim Reaper?

Speak the last line of this stanza aloud, and listen to the pace (how quickly or
slowly you say the words). Is Keats using the sound of words to reinforce
and/or to parallel the meaning of the line?

Click here for vocabulary and allusions in stanza II.

Stanza III

Spring in line 1 has the same function as Summer in stanza I; they represent
process, the flux of time. In addition, spring is a time of a rebirth of life, an
association which contrasts with the explicitly dying autumn of this stanza.
Furthermore, autumn spells death for the now "full-grown" lambs which were
born in spring; they are slaughtered in autumn. And the answer to the question
of line 1, where are Spring's songs, is that they are past or dead. The auditory
details that follow are autumn's songs.

The day, like the season, is dying. The dying of day is presented favorably,
"soft-dying." Its dying also creates beauty; the setting sun casts a "bloom" of
"rosy hue" over the dried stubble or stalks left after the harvest. Keats accepts
all aspects of autumn; this includes the dying, and so he introduces sadness; the
gnats "mourn" in a "wailful choir" and the doomed lambs bleat (Why does
Keats use "lambs," rather than "sheep" here? would the words have a different
effect on the reader?). It is a "light" or enjoyable wind that "lives or dies," and
the treble of the robin is pleasantly "soft." The swallows are gathering for their
winter migration.

Keats blends living and dying, the pleasant and the unpleasant, because they are
inextricably one; he accepts the reality of the mixed nature of the world.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

The first lines of the poem serve to begin the controlling metaphor upon which the rest of the
poem builds. A metaphor is simply a figure of speech in which one thing is substituted for
another, and a controlling metaphor is a metaphor that impacts, controls, or unifies the entire
poem. In this poem, the “Captain” is a substitute for Abraham Lincoln, and the “ship” is the
United States of America. “The fearful trip” is the Civil War, which had ended just prior to
Lincoln’s assassination. Thus the ship is returning home to cheering crowds having won “the
prize” of victory, just as the Union, led by Lincoln, had returned victorious from the Civil War.
The utterance “O Captain! my Captain” is particularly interesting in this light. In one sense the
speaker is addressing his Captain directly, but in another respect he seems to be speaking to
himself about his Captain. The repetition helps to assert the uncertainty he feels at the
Captain’s loss.

Lines 5-8

Lines 5-8 communicate the unpleasant news that the Captain has somehow fallen dead after
the battle. More importantly, the repetition of “heart! heart! heart!” communicates the speaker
of the poem’s dismay and horror at realizing that his Captain has died. The poem is then as
much about the “I” of the poem and how he comes to terms with his grief, how he processes
this information, as it is about the central figure of the Captain. The “bleeding drops of red”
are both the Captain’s bleeding wounds and the speakers wounded heart. Finally, these lines
function as a broken heroic couplet, a two-line rhymed verse that originated in heroic epic
poetry and is usually, as is the case with these lines, written in iambic pentameter. The broken
lines are called hemistiches and are commonly used, as they are here, to the underlying
rhythm of the poem and to suggest emotional upheaval.

Lines 9-12

In this pivotal second stanza, the speaker of the poem entreats his Captain to “Rise up and
hear the bells.” In essence the speaker laments that his Captain, having led his crew bravely
to victory, will not receive the fanfare that is his just due. At the same time Whitman blends
two distinct scenes: one in which crowds gather to receive and celebrate the Captain (Lincoln)
upon his return from military victory; and the second in which people gather to lament him as
a fallen hero.

The bells of the second stanza are presumably the bells rung in celebration of military victory;
however, knowing the great Captain and leader has died the bells might also symbolize funeral
bells tolled in mourning. Similarly, the “flag,” is flown in honor of the Captain both as a symbol
of rejoicing and victory and as a symbol of lamentation — as in the tradition of flying the
American flag at half-mast when a respected American dies. The bugle, a quintessentially
military musical instrument, alludes to both military victory and to “Taps,” the requiem
traditionally played at funerals of fallen soldiers. Bouquets and wreathes are also common to
both celebratory receptions and funerals. Finally, the throngs of people become symbolic as
well. Not only are they representative of the people who welcomed and rejoiced at the Union’s
victory in the Civil War, but they represent the throngs of people who gathered across the
nation to mournfully view Lincoln’s coffin as it was taken by train from Washington, D.C., to
Springfield, Illinois. The crowds remind the reader that the speaker of the poem is not alone in
lamenting his Captain’s death, but rather shares this experience with the masses. In this
manner the poem is in keeping with Whitman’s experience. While he himself had a powerful
personal reaction to the news of Lincoln’s death, Lincoln was the Captain and father-figure of
an entire nation and so the poet’s grief, while central to the poem, is shared by the rest of the
country.

Lines 13-14

In the next group of lines, the speaker of the poem again entreats his Captain to “hear.” In
this case he may be referring to the bells of the first stanza, or perhaps to himself, his pleas.
More importantly, the speaker for the first time calls his Captain “father.” In this manner,
Whitman expands the metaphor for Lincoln beyond the more limited scope of a military leader
of men into a father figure, one whose wisdom and teachings led his children into adulthood.
The poem celebrates Lincoln as more than simply a great military leader who led the Union to
victory during the Civil War and attaches to him a broader significance as the father of this
new, post-slavery country.

Lines 15-16

In Lines 15-16 the speaker asserts that this must all be a bad dream. Here the poem captures
the speaker’s denial; the emotional impact of Lincoln’s demise has made it almost impossible
for the speaker to accept. The refrain “fallen cold and dead,” is slightly altered in this stanza in
that it is apparently addressed to the Captain. The effect is to again reinforce the speaker’s
difficulty in coming to terms with his Captain’s death; even though his Captain is dead, the
speaker continues to speak to him as though he were alive.

Lines 17-18

The speaker of the poem, no longer able to hold out hope, faces up to the reality of his
Captain’s death. The details and images evoked in these lines all serve to reiterate that the
Captain is deceased: his pallid lips, lack of a pulse, and lack of will. Unlike me two previous
stanzas, the speaker in no way addresses his Captain directly but speaks of him entirely in the
third-person. In this sense, he has finally accepted that his Captain is dead.

Lines 19-24
Having finally faced up to his Captain’s death, the speaker then turns his attention back to the
recent victory. Lines 19-24 suggest again the internal division suffered by the speaker of the
poem. Having accepted that his Captain is indeed dead it would seem he can now return his
attention to the military victory. After all, one could surely argue that the plight of an entire
nation of people far outweighs the fate of a single man. Nevertheless, the speaker of the poem
chooses the individual over the larger nation. While “Exult O shores, and ring O bells” is
explicitly a call for rejoicing, the speaker himself will not celebrate but will walk “with mournful
tread,” knowing that his Captain is indeed “Fallen cold and dead.” The speaker thus celebrates
the end of the Civil War but continues to express his need to mourn his fallen hero.

The poet wishes to be awakened to a heaven where the mind can work fearlessly and the
spirit can hold its head high, where one can acquire knowledge in all freedom of choice, where
the big world of man is not fragmented or restricted to small mutually exclusive
compartments, where everybody speaks his/her heart clear, where actions flow in the form of
various streams moving from success to success, where petty conventions do not stagnate the
course of judgement, where manhood is not pieced, where God himself leads us in all acts, all
thoughts, and all sources of delight. We need a strong motivating slap by God to be elevated
to that heaven.

Poem Summary

Lines 1-4

In the opening stanza, the speaker directly addresses the psalmist. He begins by dismissing
the psalmist’s sad poetry, and he rejects as dangerous the psalmist’s notion that human life is
a meaningless illusion. If one accepts the logic that life is just a dream, he cautions, one’s soul
will not merely sleep, but die. On the surface, human life may appear futile, but the speaker
contends that it is actually this sense of hopelessness — and not human life itself — that is the
illusion.

Lines 5-8
Longfellow uses the second stanza to build on the ideas of the first. Because the soul lives
eternally, the speaker reasons, life must be real. Note that in the first line there is a caesura,
or break, after the word “real.” This caesura forces the reader to pause, thereby emphasizing
the idea that life is real. These lines are an allusion to the Bible’s book of Genesis, where God
says to the fallen Adam, “dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” In Longfellow’s
poem, the speaker is asserting that although the mortal body will die, the soul is exempt from
death.

Lines 9-12

The third stanza introduces the central theme of the poem: the purpose of life is not to
experience pleasure or sorrow, but “to act” — to perform the deeds that will improve the
condition of mankind. Note that by this point in the poem, the speaker has ceased to address
the psalmist; instead, he is directing his remarks to mankind in general, as is evidenced by his
broadly inclusive use of the first person plural — “our” and “us.”

Lines 13-16

The fourth stanza begins with an allusion to a line from Seneca’s work De Brevitate
vitae, which states “vita brevis est, ars longa,” or “Life is brief, art long.” The idea here is that
although a lifetime passes relatively quickly, it actually takes a long time to learn how to live
well — to decipher the “art” of living. The speaker is suggesting with some urgency, then, that
we should live as productive a life as possible, because death (of the human body, not the
soul) is always imminent. Note the simile in line 15, which compares the human heartbeat to
“muffled drums.” On a literal level, of course, a heartbeat can sound like a drumbeat, but
Longfellow extends this idea to suggest that our own hearts are measuring out the backbeat of
a steady and irreversible journey toward death. Each beat of our hearts, Longfellow implies,
carries us closer to death. If you read the stanza aloud, you will notice that, at this point, the
trochaic rhythm is especially steady and even; it sounds as though a drum is beating in the
background.

Lines 17-20

These lines rely heavily on war imagery, as the march to the grave has been transformed to a
march to battle. By comparing life to a “bivouac,” a temporary campsite during a battle, the
speaker reminds us again of the transience of human existence. He exhorts the reader — who,
by implication, is a soldier — to become a hero in this battle and not merely march to his or
her death like a cow forced to the slaughterhouse.

Lines 21-24

In the sixth stanza, the speaker explains in detail how the reader can become a hero. He
advises the reader not to hope for the future nor to worry about the past. Instead, in a return
to the poem’s central theme, he urges the reader to live actively in the present. The speaker
emphasizes his imperative instruction that we “act” by repeating the word twice in line 23.
Note how Longfellow draws our attention to the word “act” by manipulating the meter: not
only does he insert a caesura between the two “acts,” but, metrically, the two consecutive
words are stressed, giving them added force.
Lines 25-28

In the seventh stanza, the speaker asks the reader to consider past heroes. These “great
men,” the speaker indicates, should inspire us to live our lives so fully that we, too, will leave
behind records of greatness when we die. Longfellow suggests the idea of a record of
greatness by using a metaphor: “footprints on the sands of time.” Even here, however, this
metaphor ironically reminds us of the transient nature of life, since these footprints will
eventually be washed away by the tide. Nonetheless, they may have a positive effect on the
people who live after us.

Lines 29-32

The “footprints” metaphor of the seventh stanza develops into the central conceit, or
governing concept, of the eighth stanza. The speaker envisions a shipwrecked sailor who is
lost at sea but observes these footprints in the sand. In this conceit, the sailor represents any
discouraged or lonely individual who receives encouragement from the memory of the good
deeds of others.

Lines 33-36

The speaker concludes the poem by exhorting us to live active, courageous lives. He is urging
the reader to strive continuously to accomplish good, useful deeds: these good deeds, it is
suggested, give life meaning and purpose. The last word of the poem, “wait,” has a few
possible meanings; it can mean “to serve” others — in this case, by working or “laboring”
diligently; it can mean “to be ready” for someone or some event; or it can mean to be
“watchful” — to be on the lookout for good opportunities as well as to be on guard against
unexpected events or dangers. The poem ends, then, as it began, with a word of caution and
of hope.

The man in the poem goes through these stages:

 Infancy: In this stage he is a baby


 Childhood: It is in this stage that he begins to go to school. He is reluctant to leave the
protected environment of his home as he is still not confident enough to exercise his own
discretion.
 The lover: In this stage he is always remorseful due to some reason or other, especially
the loss of love. He tries to express feelings through song or some other cultural activity.
 The soldier: It is in this age that he thinks less of himself and begins to think more of
others. He is very easily aroused and is hot headed. He is always working towards making a
reputation for himself and gaining recognition, however short-lived it may be, even at the cost
of his own life.
 The justice: In this stage he has acquired wisdom through the many experiences he has
had in life. He has reached a stage where he has gained prosperity and social status. He
becomes very attentive of his looks and begins to enjoy the finer things of life.
 Old age: He begins to lose his charm — both physical and mental. He begins to become
the brunt of others' jokes. He loses his firmness and assertiveness, and shrinks in stature and
personality.
 Mental dementia and death: He loses his status and he becomes a non-entity. He
becomes dependent on others like a child and is in need of constant support before finally
dying.