O Captain! My Captain! and other Poems

On Christmas Day I made a resolution – to read (at least) one poem every day for the next year. I have often wanted to read more poetry now I am going to make a concerted effort to do so.

One poem a day does not sound very much, and if it is a very short one, it won’t be, but I would like this project to be an enjoyable exercise rather than one in which I have to exercise a lot of discipline in order to complete it. I already have plenty of other reading and writing projects that require make such a rigorous approach!

In this series of blog posts, I shall share which poems I have read. Under each title I will quote which line(s) stood out for me and give a short explanation why. Where possible I will link to the poems. I hope you enjoy what the poet, and maybe even I, have to say.

Christmas Day (25.12.14)
O Captain! My Captain! (text)
Walt Whitman

O CAPTAIN! my Captain, our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,

This poem is indelibly linked in the public imagination with the film Dead Poet’s Society. The first line speaks not only to the tragic conclusion of the film, but the tragic death in 2014 of its star, Robin Williams, who committed suicide after a long (lifelong) struggle with depression. Reading the poem, I find myself imagining Williams as the captain. As a Catholic, I pray that after death he was awarded the prize of peace that life was not able to give him.

Boxing Day (26.12.14)
A Song: “Men of England” (text)
Percy Shelley

Men of England, wherefore plough
For the lords who lay ye low?
Wherefore weave with toil and care
The rich robes your tyrants wear?

Anyone who imagines that England before the Industrial Revolution was a green and pleasant land should be ordered to read this anguished, sarcastic and revolutionary minded poem. And I suppose if you replaced the references to fields with offices you would have a poem that described the situation for John Bull today. Shelley would weep if he saw the lack of progress we have made in the last two hundred years.
27th December 2014
A Letter From Italy (text)
Joseph Addison

While you, my Lord, the rural shades admire,
And from Britannia’s public posts retire,
Nor longer, her ungrateful sons to please,
For their advantage sacrifice your ease;

I have to admit I did not find this poem very memorable and had to look through it a couple of times just now to find a passage that I could speak to. I chose the above lines because they provide a little balance to Shelley’s view of malignant lords. Not all were so nasty – some gave up an awful lot in order to ‘please’ the people.

 28th December 2014
Among the Narcissi (text)
Sylvia Plath

The flowers vivid as bandages, and the man mending.
They bow and stand: they suffer such attacks!

Rereading this poem, I wondered what Plath meant by ‘they suffer such attacks!’ but it has occurred to me that – whatever she meant – the image reminds me of Percy’s suffering. He has just had an operation and is now nursing ‘the hardship of his stitches’ and is being turned blue by the ‘terrible wind’. The narcissi may be like children but they are also old and frail. And now that I have realised that, I notice that Plath makes this connexion in the very first line of the poem: ‘Spry, wry, and gray as these March sticks,’

29th December 2014
Sappho to Phaon (text)
Alexander Pope – Ovid Heroid XV

Farewell, my Lesbian love, you might have said,
Or coldly thus, Farewell, oh Lesbian maid!

These lines provide a challenge – to remember that lesbian means not simply a woman who is sexually attracted to other women but also a person from the island of Lesbos, off Greece (the transfer of meaning comes, of course, from Lesbos’ most famous citizen, Sappho who wrote love poems to other women. Whether she was a lesbian in the sexual sense I don’t actually know). It is important to recognise and rise to the challenge as otherwise one’s response to older usages of the word (i.e. pre-nineteenth century when it took on its sexual sense) will degenerate into base humour, which ultimately damages how one sees homosexual people of any stripe.

30th December 2014
Ode to the Medieval Poets (text)
W H Auden

Chaucer, Langland, Douglas, Dunbar, with all your
brother Anons, how on earth did you ever manage,
without anaesthetics or plumbing,
in daily peril from witches, warlocks,

lepers, The Holy Office, foreign mercenaries
burning as they came, to write so cheerfully,

On the one hand this is a very playful poem. I fear, though, that the game is to laugh at the mediaevals for being primitive – no ‘anaesthetics or plumbing’ – and simple minded – belief in ‘witches and warlocks’. Rather than cry at the mediaevals for what they didn’t have, we would be better off crying for the poets in twentieth century Germany and eastern Europe for what they didn’t have – freedom – thanks to real people who were very much worse than the witches and warlocks of the Middle Ages who did not exist.

31st December 2014
On Christina Rossetti (text)
Dante Gabriel Rossetti

THERE’S a female bard, grim as a fakier,
Who daily grows shakier and shakier.

I had my seven poems from Christmas Day to New Year’s Eve Bookmarked and ready to read. Yesterday, however, I found a poem on New Year’s Day by C S Lewis. That took someone’s place. Whose? Oh dear. It looks like I’ve deleted one of the seven by accident as Lewis is now top of my bookmarked list. Well, no worries, it was the anniversary of Chris. Rossetti’s death the other day (29th) so let’s look for one by her. I almost did but first I came to the above poem by her brother, Dante Gabriel. And, as it happens, that is the whole poem! What a poem it is, too. The kind only a brother can – or ought to – write. I can just imagine them sitting at home penning such ditties to each other and having a good laugh before heading off to the dining room.

And with parlour door closing and their steps fading into the distance, that is where this post ends.

This entry was posted in Eighteenth Century Poetry, Nineteenth Century Poetry, Twentieth Century Poetry and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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