Monday, October 4, 2010

Context Matters

For me, the story behind a poem or song makes a big difference.  I remember running across Walt Whitman's poem "O Captain!  My Captain" and not thinking much of it.  The narrator is so distraught, but I did not feel the emotion or understand the tragedy of the captain's death.

Then last year we studied the Civil War and I discovered that Whitman wrote this poem about Lincoln's assassination.  He was killed just days after leading our country through that terrible time, and before he could work to heal the divisions we experienced.  Now Whitman's words bring me nearly to tears every time I read them.

O Captain!  My Captain!  by Walt Whitman
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.

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