My Sad Captains
By Thom Gunn, English, 1929 - 2004
One by one they appear in
the darkness: a few friends, and
a few with historical
names. How late they start to shine!
but before they fade they stand
perfectly embodied, all
the past lapping them like a
cloak of chaos. They were men
who, I thought, lived only to
renew the wasteful force they
spent with each hot convulsion.
They remind me, distant now.
True, they are not at rest yet,
but now that they are indeed
apart, winnowed from failures,
they withdraw to an orbit
and turn with disinterested
hard energy, like the stars.
Source: Collected Poems (Farrar Straus and Giroux, 1994)
“Let’s have one other gaudy night. Call to me
All my sad captains. Fill our bowls once more.
Let’s mock the midnight bell.”
But why captains? Captains could be those who steer us to our destinations as the leader of the ship. It might also be referring to these people as having once been seen as role models. There is some evidence that Gunn had in mind those such as Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, James Dean, Caravaggio and even Napoleon Bonaparte. Quite a mix! He was an admirer of Jean-Paul Sartre which chimes in with the existentialist attitude in this poem.
I'm listening to the original version of Walk Away Renée as written and recorded by The Left Banke in 1966! Listen here.