O Captain, my Captain is the poem that got me started reading Walt Whitman – one of many works mentioned in Dead Poets Society that got me reading particular authors. Not exactly Whitman’s most cheerful work.
Mom used to tell stories of her grandma Nace (my great grandmother) throwing apples at crazy old Walt Whitman as he went for his daily walk near his home in Camden, The kids of the town thought that he was a crazy old man. But he was a man who took his personal tragedies – mostly having to do with his brothers – and turned them into beauty, poetry, and a lifetime of service to the wounded of the civil war.
And now, when so many people are quoting “O Captain, My Captain” in reference to Robin Williams, I have to wonder if they’ve read past the first line – a deeply tragic poem about the death of President Lincoln, in which he is imagined as a ship captain who doesn’t quite make it into harbor, after his great victories. Chillingly apropos of yesterday’s tragic end to the brilliant career of Robin Williams.
Exult O shores, and ring O bells!
But I with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.