“Captain , oh my captain! “At least 3 generations have bumped into this quotation, reminding first of all (not for all) the famous movie "The dead poets society" by Peter Weir.
Our memory goes to the image of Todd (starred by Ethan Hawke) standing on the school desk and screaming loud the beginning verse of this poetry as a protest against the rules of the school and the disillusionment of adulthood that were taking away a dreamer professor from his academy. And he was followed by all his class companions, as if the symbolic ship was, in that case, their prestigious academy together with their future life. It was a scream testifying that event though professor keating was leaving, probably forever, his print in their lives would have lasted and his words were were not useless.
This now famous movie quotation is, as said in the movie itself, the title and incipit of a Walt Whitman’s poetry. The American author wrote this elegant and passionated metaphor of the America of his era (the years of the Secession War) after the death of Abraham Lincoln, another character that is reviving a period of movie&theatre popularity.
O Captain! My Captain! Was written after Lincoln’s murder. In that case the Ship is the US, and the fearful trip is the difficult situation faced by the Country during, but even after the end of the secession war. The Captain (who’s just left the ship) is Lincoln himself.
Though in the scene described by Walt Whitman we find won prizes, exulting people, sound of bells, the taste of the poem is irremediably sad; the exultation after the war is senseless because of the death of all those who’ve lost their lives to fight for a cause (both the "right" one and the "less right" one).
And, in the end, even if the sign of Lincoln will unforgettably remain in the blood of an entire country, like the teaching of professor Keating for the students of the Welton academy, he’s gone, and the memory can’t fulfill the physical absence.
This sadness unrewarded by memory and glory is not a surprise, considering how close to phisicity was Walt Whitman. With his poems Whitman theorized his visionary ideal that places man, instead of the perception and understanding of things, as focal point.
This is a perception of things and reality that still astonishes nowadays, because it gets far away from the American heroic celebration of glory and victory. Though a celebrative poem, it ends with the words “Fallen cold and dead”, image ratified twice in this text.
The “Captain” is also named “father”. His death is the beginnig of a tortuos adulthood of a Country that seems to need always a symbol to follow, as if in an everlasting adolescence.
When the father is not there anymore, the country has to walk alone. And like the ship, it will always be fighting not to be shipwrecked.
And it gives the poem a hue of modernity that still make shiver.
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.