“O Captain! My Captain!”: Channeling Walt Whitman in Attack on Titan

No one loves and hates more fiercely than Eren Yeager.

Except for Captain Levi.

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Though scarcely a cold ember to Eren’s raging inferno, Levi, despite being a hardened veteran, feels the most out of our merry, intrepid band of soldiers. You can’t help but let cynicism darken your thoughts and general perspective on life when you’re being clobbered by Titans–and it’s all too easy to clamp down and deaden your feelings when the guy sitting next to you at breakfast becomes breakfast for some Titan. 

The question we're all asking, Armin.
The question we’re all asking, Armin.

O Captain! My Captain!

Levi’s a mix of contradictions strapped up into one short, deadly killing machine. We get a whisper of him here and there in the first half of the anime: he’s this legendary figure in the Survey Corps, having an exemplary Titan kill record and heralded as “Humanity’s Strongest Soldier.” Once you see him in action with his signature spinning, dual-wielding aerials, it’s hard not to see how exactly he’s earned that title.

The whirling, glowy saw-blade? That's Levi.
The whirling, glowy saw-blade? That’s Levi.
Levi in the air.
Levi, screwing the laws of physics.

O heart! heart! heart! /O bleeding drops of red.

His lips are pale and still/…he has no pulse nor will.

Beneath his aloof personality–infused with dark humor and deadpan expression, is a soul of great compassion and empathy. He may not show it, preferring the thick armor of discourtesy and condescension, but Levi is incredibly kind and cares deeply for his men. He abhors unnecessary deaths (so, any deaths at all) and values every man under his command dearly.

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It’s an incredibly sad but also emotionally moving scene. Being  OCD about dirt and gore, Levi’s lack of hesitation in accepting the dying soldier’s hand is a powerful gesture of consolation. Levi may be a cruel demon to Titans and the corrupt but he is loving to his fellow soldier, determined to give them the spark of hope in an otherwise bleak, and regretfully short life.

For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning

It’s amazing that Levi’s not as psychologically and emotionally removed as Commander Erwin, who appears determined to completely sacrifice any emotional–human–tendencies for the sake of ensuring humanity’s survival (Not that I’m belittling Erwin–he’s got the toughest job out of everyone).

Not surprisingly, Levi is deeply respected by his men. The Special Operations Squad–all comprised of the most talented soldiers, the cream of the crop–all unfailingly put absolute faith in their leader. It’s a bond of trust so strong, so deep, that even a skeptical, desperate Eren finds the courage to put his faith in others rather than himself.

"Trust in the Captain, even though I have no idea what's he doing!"
“Trust in the Captain, even though I have no idea what’s he doing!”

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!/ But I, with mournful tread

Despite his superhuman athletic prowess and agility, Levi never loses sight of his limitations. Unlike a certain hot-headed Titan-shifter, Levi acknowledges that even experience on the field, while helpful in increasing one’s chances of success, isn’t enough to guarantee survival. A revelation that would leave even the hardiest man permanently paralyzed with terror, Levi calmly uses it as his center of focus, allowing logic to control his emotions, instead of vice versa. Either way, the uncertainty of survival persists, and rather than fret about making the right choice, he accepts that the luxury of knowing what the right choice is simply isn’t an option. The only thing one can do is to trust (wherever one chooses to place that trust) that the decision made will be free of regrets.

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This arm beneath your head; 

It is some dream that on the deck, You’ve fallen cold and dead.

Yet, you can’t help but think that out of every survivor of the failed test run to Shiganshina, Levi ends up burdened with the most regrets. Sure, he’s not exactly emoting in waterfalls of guilt like our young Eren, but displays of grief need not be overt to convey their deepness. Levi has lost every one of his squad members–all of whom were close to him not unlike a dysfunctional family. You can practically feel the rawness of his unspoken sorrow as he tears out Petra’s Survey Corps badge and keeps it close to his person. It becomes the only thing left of her when they’re forced to dump the bodies to lighten the load on the wagons to escape the pursuing Titans.

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Which only makes Levi’s sacrifice when he relinquishes the badge–the only thing he had from Petra after the body was dumped–all the more painful. Yet again, he does it without hesitation, choosing to take the token of her memory and transform it into a bittersweet healing balm for another grieving soldier.

A white lie to comfort his fellow man.
A white lie to comfort his fellow man.

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But Titans aren’t the scariest monsters that dwell in the world of Attack on Titan. The true, perhaps most frightening monster is a non-corporeal entity, the entity of crushed hopes, of trampled young life, of the eternal cycle of grief perpetuated by dead letters, promises broken, and dreams dashed. (And of course, the selfishness and greed of the corrupt but that’s another story for another day.)

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If words could kill, Levi would be a dead man.
If words could kill, Levi would be a dead man.

If that’s not the look of a broken man, I don’t know what is…

O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;

Rise up–for you the flag is flung–for you the bugle trills!

How else does a broken man keep up fighting when all who he holds dear in his heart is brutally taken away? Mangled in the trees, smashed against the walls, dissolved in Titan chyme? The answer for Levi is not entirely clear to us, since the narrative has yet to grant us more access into his thoughts. But his actions speak for themselves, and do just fine channeling his feelings of despair and rage for all that he has lost, and all that he will undoubtedly lose. He fights knowing that the war with the Titans is a war of attrition and that humanity’s fate is sealed. But he fights anyway, for everyone, keeping that flame of hope burning just a little while longer. Because that’s the only thing he can do for humanity.

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Never has vengeance felt so righteous. Levi, a man who suffers to live and dishes agony to his enemies in spades.
Never has vengeance felt so righteous. Levi, a man who suffers to live and dishes agony to his enemies in spades. In other words, humanity’s homeboy.

***

Note: The quotes framing this post are lines pulled from a poem entitled “O Captain! My Captain!”, from Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman. I realize that the subject of the poem is centered on the death of the captain but the sentiments and tone of the poem fit well with the bleakness of the anime. You can read the original poem here.

I also broke the 12 Days of Christmas pattern because 1) Attack on Titan felt too serious to fit into a melody; 2) I couldn’t fit the number 7- if you have any appropriate suggestions, feel free to send them my way!]

Also, additional thanks to my sister for helping me with the screenshots.

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2 thoughts on ““O Captain! My Captain!”: Channeling Walt Whitman in Attack on Titan

  1. Everything you wrote was Spot On!!!
    Thank you for being one of the few people who truly understand the depth of Levi’s character 🙂 And not just for his inhuman super strength.

    I’m extremely glad to have stumbled across a rare article. Thanks so much for taking your time for writing it 🙂

    Like

    1. Thanks and welcome to Anime Monographia. Glad you enjoyed this post–Levi is a popular character in the SnK fandom but also a surprisingly deep one. He comes off as a terse and angry guy but actually has a lot of compassion for the people under his command. He’s much more transparent than Erwin, who’s much more of an enigma.

      Like

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