Mourning Robin Williams, With a Poem Written for Abraham Lincoln

Robin WilliamsThe world woke up this morning to the news of the untimely death of actor, comedian, and humanitarian Robin Williams. Having been a fan of his since his first appearance as Mork on the sitcom Happy Days, before he spun the character off into his own show Mork and Mindy, his demise comes as a shock. The world mourns.

One of the ways many people are honoring his life’s work is by posting a clip of Williams from the movie Dead Poet’s Society. It features a passage from Walt Whitman’s extended metaphor poem, “O Captain! My Captain!”

It’s a poignant moment in the movie. It’s also a poem Whitman wrote about the death of Abraham Lincoln.

Walt Whitman lived in Washington during the Civil War and often watched President Lincoln ride by horseback, later by carriage, to and from his summer living quarters in the Soldier’s Home (now called the Lincoln Cottage). He admired Lincoln, and after the  assassination Whitman composed “O Captain! My Captain!” to mourn the loss of such a great man. According to the Wiki article:

The captain in the poem refers to Abraham Lincoln who is the captain of the ship, representing the United States of America. The first line establishes a happy mood as it addresses the captain. The phrase “our fearful trip is done” is talking about the end of the Civil War. The next line references the ship, America, and how it has “weathered every rack”, meaning America has braved the tough storm of the Civil War, and “the prize we sought”, the end of slavery, “is won”. The following line expresses a mood of jubilation of the Union winning the war as it says “the people all exulting”; however, the next line swiftly shifts the mood when it talks of the grimness of the ship, and the darker side of the war. Many lost their lives in the American Civil War, and although the prize that was sought was won, the hearts still ache amidst the exultation of the people. The repetition of heart in line five calls attention to the poet’s vast grief and heartache because the Captain has bled and lies still, cold, and dead (lines six through eight). This is no doubt referencing the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and Whitman’s sorrow for the death of his idol.

Such a sad, yet exalting, eulogy for the fallen President. And somehow, a fitting elegy for the tormented Robin Williams. Such a trial was his internal life; such a treasure was his gift to all of us.

As Williams’ character in Dead Poet Society puts it, the poem encourages us to think:

That you are here—that life exists, and identity;
That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.

This begs the question: “What will your verse be?”

Robin Williams’ verse was cut short. For us the living, our verse is still to be written.

David J. Kent is a lifelong Lincolnophile and is currently working on a book about Abraham Lincoln’s interest in science and technology. He is also the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity and an ebook Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time.

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