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; 10
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; 20
Exult, O shores, and ring, O bells!
But I, with mournful tread,
Walk the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Dead Poets Society
In the movie, Keating (Robin Williams) introduces this poem when he is explaining why human beings read and write poetry. According to him, we read and write poetry because we are beings with passion and poetry is an instrument of passion.
Walt Whitman wrote this metaphorical poem after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The ‘fearful trip’ refers to the American Civil War, and the ‘captain’ is Lincoln himself.
Whitman demonstrates his love and gratitude to the great man, not only by calling him the Captain of the ship, but also by calling him father whose fallen head he wishes he could support over his arm. He continues to mourn his captain while bells ring and the multitude exults, moving on and forgetting the price that Lincoln paid for that victory.
This background ties up with the movie’s story. The class Keating was assigned was made up of boys whose minds were closed; moving in pre-ordained grooves. To demonstrate and alternative reality was what Keating did by means of poetry.
He taught them the meaning of being human. He made passion alive for them. He taught them that passion was not something to be read about… or analyzed… or academically discussed. He taught them that passion can be understood only when it is experienced.
In the last scene below, when the boy Cameron begins to read out Pritchard’s essay on understanding poetry, it is a demonstration- and reminder- of everything Keating taught. When he begins to walk around the classroom on his way out, the words being read out talk of the need to see if the ‘purpose of the poem’ has been achieved or not. If it has been, the poem can be judged as a great work.
It was that moment that the boys asked themselves what they stood for. It was a defining moment for them. The ‘fearful trip’ of opening their minds was over. The multitude was exulting over their captain who had been vilely and terribly ‘murdered’.
To choose to acknowledge that fallen captain was an act of loud self-declaration.
To me this poem is more about wearing my colors on my sleeve than about defiance against authority. Assertiveness and daring are secondary emotions which need the existence of another person to be demonstrated. Defiance can only be against someone who (supposedly) has a way to direct and/or control you. The presence of another person is primary to the existence of all these emotions.
Self-definition, however, is a primary and personal emotion. You define who you are as a person by deciding for yourself what you will or will not do. It is your declaration to yourself about the kind of person you will be. It is an exercise resulting in a clearly defined self-perception deciding what and who you will be as a person. You do this not by direct declaration, but by an act of choice. By means of your choice, you declare what is important to you. It is your choice that defines what manner of (wo)man you will be.
It is an exercise most people never do at all through their lives, which is a shame.
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