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O Captain! My Captain!

The character John Keating, played by Robin Williams, used this Walt Whitman poem to set the stage for much of the movie, Dead Poet’s Society.

I do not dispute the original writing of the poem might literally be about the captain’s death and today it pays homage to Robin Williams. The movie did deal with the difficult issue of suicide. Having said this, I think it is important to consider a figurative meaning about teaching which was Keating’s profession in the movie so ably brought to life by Robin Williams.

I critiqued the movie from a teacher’s perspective while completing my Master’s degree. I spoke about the passion teaching brought into my life. I extend this to anything we choose to do. When we lose the spirit and voice that a vocation offers each of us, it is figuratively and literally a death, as well.

I recall using Parker Palmer’s quote about vocation and voice coming from the Latin vocere. Voice gives us life. Robin William’s portrayal of John Keating spoke deeply to me about holding true to the purposes we are called to in life.

                         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.

About ivonprefontaine

I completed a PhD at Gonzaga University in Spokane, WA. Previously, I taught for 20 years and taught for 15 years in a wonderful hybrid school. My dissertation topic and research were how certain teachers experience becoming who teachers. In teaching and leanring, I am a boundary-crosser who understands moving ahead is a leap of faith. Teaching is a calling and vocation to express who I am as a person. Currently, I am waiting and listening to what calls me next. I am an educator, phenomenologist, scholar, boundary-crosser, published poet, author, parent, grandparent, and spouse.

14 responses »

  1. Such a powerful poem (or should I call it “ode”?)

    Thank you very much for sharing also as a subtle tribute to RW.

    Best wishes, Aquileana 😀

  2. Ever since I married a mariner, it’s been hard to read this poem, wholly different perspective from when in college. Perspective is key to so many things.

    • It is. When I used the poem and the movie in that course, it meant one thing. Today, put in a new context with Robin Williams’ death, it means something else. Perspective is the way we can see the world differently in each moment.

  3. Almost none of the assessments of Robin William’s work mention his role in comedy ‘The Birdcage’ in which he played the part of a gay father who’d brought up a wonderful( straight) son. It was a brilliant performance, and a deeply felt expression of character. For me – it was his best role… closely followed of course, by Dead Poets….but a different kettle of fish !

  4. Look at what the man robin Williams brought to all of us that throughout his life, in vain he could reach or touch inside himself.
    Beethoven was deaf, suffering but kept at it till his last breath, with passion.

  5. Interesting, yes, I agree.

  6. I had not really understood that perspective before from this poem (about career choices). Now I see it. Thank you. I agree that with RW death there is a different side, because if one makes the career choice one’s purpose in life and that begins to fade, what is left?
    We all must strive for many purposes in life, so that is we lose one, life is still worth living.

  7. your preamble set the stage for the reading just right.

    “voice coming from the Latin vocere. Voice gives us life.” <,do you pronounce that voh-sear…?

    nice, Ivon. Really good.

  8. As a youth I was very taken with this poem. I am happy to say it has lost none of the love I’ve always had for it.


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