“O Captain, my Captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It's from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now in this class you can either call me Mr. Keating, or if you're slightly more daring, O Captain my Captain.”
- John Keating (Robin Williams), Dead Poets Society
The above line is spoken by John Keating in introducing himself to his class of boys. Who will forget the ending of the movie when it is spoken again by the boys when Keating is leaving the school in disgrace, having been made a sacrificial scapegoat by the school authorities for the suicide of one of the boys:
The poem O Captain! My Captain! was written by Walt Whitman (pictured below) in 1865 after the death of President Abraham Lincoln. The Captain is Lincoln, the “ship” represents the Union and the “fearful trip” is a reference to the American Civil War.
Repeated use of the word “my” emphasises the sense of loss of the writer/speaker, the loss of not only a captain and leader but of his father figure, who was also father of the Union.
The symbolism of the words spoken at the end of Dead Poets Society to the destroying of Professor Keating and the feelings of loss, sadness and loneliness of the boys, was not apparent to me until I read the poem.
O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done;The ship has weathered 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 ribboned 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 anchored 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.