Poetry Month – Walt Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!”

On April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., just five days after the surrender of the Civil War’s Confederate leader, General Lee.  Lincoln died the following day.

Walt Whitman wrote “Oh Captain! My Captain!” in 1865 about the assassination.

Many people know of this poem from the movie Dead Poets Society although only its title appears in the film.

The screenplay for Dead Poets Society was written by my Vanderbilt classmate and fellow English Major, Tom Schulman.

Tom, who won an Oscar for his screenplay, modeled the hidebound school in that 1989 film on his alma mater, Montgomery Bell Academy, a aristocratic prep school in Nashville, and the Robin Williams character on Sam Pickering, an inspirational teacher he had there.

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,

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!

The 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.