When I was in 11th grade, I took a drama class as one of my electives. As I was a rather reserved kid, this really threw me out of my comfort zone. I mostly loved drama class, though I probably approached it with a bit more seriousness than it required – as I did with most things in those days. Early in the year, we had a public speaking unit during which we recited short pieces revolving around different themes, such as prose, poetry, humor, etc. I typically chose my pieces well in advance and practiced the hell out of them – to the point of over-rehearsing every pause, every inflection (hence the seriousness, spontaneous I was not).
There was, however, one exception . . .
On the eve of my poetry piece, I had selected no poem and didn’t have so much as a single book of poetry in my possession. This was before the “internet in every home” phenomenon, so with no other options, I stood in front of my father’s library of moldy books and began to pull volumes off the shelf. One by one I would flip through them and one by one I would despairingly return them to their spot on the shelf. Eventually I realized that I was starting to pull the same books off the shelf over and over again. I started to panic; and then I started to sneeze. Most of these books hadn’t been touched since they were bought so I had stirred up quite a bit of dust in my search. My dad had a sizable collection, but as I soon learned, these were mostly decorative antique volumes by obscure authors, none of them poets!
It was hopeless; but I kept yanking books off the shelf anyway. What else was I going to do? It was getting late and I started to plot how I could arrive at school early and beg to be let into the library. I was just about to give up and go to bed when I found a tattered book of short stories for young boys. As I flipped through the pages, I discovered that between every story there was a POEM!! And where there was a poem, there was HOPE!! A glimmer of beautiful, glorious hope! Until I started to read the poems anyway. Most of them were ridiculously simple verses with even simpler rhymes about things like balls and bikes and fishing lures. Ugh.
Towards the end of the book, I reached a poem entitled O Captain! My Captain! My heart started to race. As my red, allergen-infested eyes glanced over the words, I could feel hope welling up within me again. After the first reading, I knew this was a poem I could respectably perform without being laughed out of the room. After the second reading, I could feel the emotion, the expression, the sheer power behind the words.
At the time, I had no idea that the author of that poem was a well known poet. I had never heard of Walt Whitman. My drama instructor must have assumed that I knew because she made no mention of it. I didn’t realize it until years later, when I studied Whitman in a college poetry class. What I had thought was just an obscure verse in a yellowed and tattered book for boys was actually a famous poem by a great American bard!
And that is how Walt Whitman saved me.
The poem is actually a metaphor for Abraham Lincoln’s assassination, with the “Captain” representing Lincoln. The “ship” refers to the United States and the “fearful trip” alludes to the Civil War.
O Captain! My Captain!
O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is
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
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
From feartul 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.