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O Captain, My Captain! – 11/2/2014

Walt Whitman is one of the most famous of all the Unitarian poets – a lineage with quite a few notable names in it. He also gets my pick as one of the best. He was the sort of poet who was both complimented and accused in his day of capturing the soul of his nation and the sentiment of his era. And if he ever actually accomplished this, it was most likely in the short verse that he wrote in his grief, after the assassination of President Lincoln.

In the poem he cries, “O Captain! My Captain!” comparing the country to a ship and the President to its commanding officer.

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;

But the captain Whitman writes of cannot, of course, hear the cheers, or see the flag. Lincoln is missing the outpouring of feeling following his death. This may feel particularly unjust in the case of a sudden or violent death, but really it is true at the ending of most lives. We miss the days and years and even decades that come after us – the times when the kindest things are said of us, when, so often, the greatest consequences of our lives are realized.

Lisa shared with us a moment ago about how the death of her nephew and the process of grief that followed it was one of the forces that drove her to stop putting off her sense of call and take the decisive steps towards ministry. The finest mark that I know of for a life well-lived is that it challenges the people who live on after it to live more honestly, more courageously, more passionately than they might have otherwise. The choices we make following the death of someone we love, or in the memory of their life now passed, doesn’t fully explain or justify their dying. But it is the means that we have as a species of continuing the eternal project of hope in the presence of death.

Whitman’s words for Lincoln point us to another, related matter. The President was a stranger to the poet. They were not family or friends, they never met each other, never spoke. Yet his death made a profound impact on Whitman – on millions of people, in fact. The loss is not the same, cannot be the same, as it is for family or other close relationships. But is, none-the-less, real. The stories of our lives frequently extend beyond the sphere of those we actually know, and the ending of that story has meaning for them entirely beyond our control. Some of us have had a different version of this same effect this past week with the passing of Tom Menino, the long-time mayor of Boston. However the life of a public figure ends, the work of mourning and remembering them is not so different for distant admirers as for dear friends: we know them differently, as something closer to a character than to a real living person. But still, our role is to take what is best from their story as we understand it; to be encouraged by their virtues; to learn from their mistakes; to continue with our own lives the best that they began with theirs.

The poem, O Captain! My Captain! was at the heart of a film from my adolescence: The Dead Poet’s Society. The story is about a group of young men at boarding school. Their English teacher is determined to teach them to dream big and live boldly, and is so great a fan of Walt Whitman that he invites the class to refer to him with that same address: “O captain, my captain.” At one point the teacher takes his class out into the hallway to show them framed photographs of past students of the school. He invites his pupils to see themselves in unnamed, black and white faces they see before them. He asks them to consider about these young men, now long-since grown, perhaps many of them dead, “Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable?” The legacy of these dead strangers, in the words of the instructor, “Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

The part of that teacher was played in the film by the actor Robin Williams, who died this past summer – another sorrowful case of a person taking their own life. As Lisa spoke to before, those of us who live on after someone else commits suicide are left scrambling for answers which are generally few and far between. The most meaning I can pull from such an experience is that we should say more often to ourselves and to each other what I will say to each of you now: you are loved, you are cared for, the life entrusted to you matters – it is never too late to begin again. But ultimately any death, no matter how tragic or how anticipated, confronts us in the same manner as those black and white photographs: live your life. Live it well. Love more. Choose what is right but difficult over what is easy and wrong.

If we all cannot be extraordinary, mathematically speaking, then let us resolve to be great, according to our own means and opportunities. When life has run its course for us, let us have no need to regret missing the trumpets and the shouts of those who remember us. Instead, let us live so that we may one day die knowing that we did live: with courage, with hope, and most of all with love. All those people we remember this day – both people we knew dearly and those we knew only through that strange medium of fame – let them remind us that live deserves all that we have to give to it, and the world is no less deserving even though they are no longer with us to share it.


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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