O Captain! My Captain!

For the Poetry Writing Challenge I’ve been participating in, which consists of 30 Poems in 30 Days — it is day 27, and the challenge is to take part in a Poem in Your Pocket Day, and for the challenge, we were invited to read, write, or share poetry that is meaningful to us. For me, one of the most meaningful poems, one that has deeply affected me, is Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain!

pirate ship

O Captain! My Captain!

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.

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;

Here captain! dear father!

This arm beneath your head;

It is some dream that on the deck,

You’ve fallen cold and dead.

My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still;

My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;

The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done;

From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won;

Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!

But I, with mournful tread,

Walk the deck my captain lies,

Fallen cold and dead.

I first encountered it when I was in high school, and being an avid fan of Civil War era history, I thought it was a splendid tribute to Abraham Lincoln. Later on, it was a pivotal piece of the plot in Dead Poets Society and affected me deeply the first time I saw a stage production based on the movie.  

The second time I saw a stage version, my son was playing Neil Parry, and my husband, Kelly, was playing his overbearing father. It was an amazing experience to watch the two of them on stage together, there was a realness to their dialogue, fueled in part by elements of their real personal relationship — my teenage son navigating the journey to adulthood,  and his father who didn’t always understand.

In the play, Neil cuts his life short. In real life, Kelly played the role of Neil’s father before an audience, just that opening night. Early the next morning, he died, thus cementing together in my mind, Walt Whitman’s poem, Kelly’s relationship with our son, Jason, and Robin Williams performance in the movie. How he did it, I do not know, but after a week’s hiatus, my son went back and finished the run of the play.

Dead Poets

Some time later, I wrote a piece of Flash Fiction (except it was real) based on the incident, In 55 Words, which I later reworked into a poem. But the poem and its connections weren’t finished for me. When Robin Williams died and left us, the poem, the play, and my husband’s death were all brought together, and the words, “O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done . . . My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will;” were a fitting epitaph to a shared fate.

I always loved this scene, where Mr. Keating (Robin William) quotes Whitman to the boys in his charge:

‘O me! O life!… of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer. That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?

Whitman’s poetry plays a central part of Dead Poets Society, and I found myself reflecting on these particular words in the days that followed Kelly’s death, indeed, the remainder of the run of the play was dedicated to Kelly, with the line, “What will your verse be.” It is my conviction that his life —though relatively brief only forty-six years—  was a full verse, and that he made the world a better place with his presence. In a few days, April 30th, we would have been celebrating our 36th wedding anniversary — and while I miss him and will be celebrating alone, I like to think that perhaps he would be proud of how I have taken the advice to Seize the Day – Carpe Diem!  

Over twelve years now have passed since I lost Kelly, but the power of this poem never fails to stir the senses within, bringing to mind what Dennis Gabor once said, “Poetry is plucking at the heartstrings, and making music with them.” I love how poetry, Whitman’s poem, in particular, captured a lifetime in a few brief stanzas. I wrote an essay, trying to do capture my life with Kelly—would that I had Shakespeare’s talent for brevity as this love story in four lines demonstrates. 

“No sooner met but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy; and in these degrees have they made a pair of stairs to marriage…”                  —As You Like It  

Unfortunately, I need to work on that, but enough philosophy for one day. Next time, I’ll share a happy poem, promise.



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