The analysis of "The Captain"

General discussion about Leonard Cohen's songs and albums
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Post by Zabka » Mon Mar 15, 2004 7:12 am

Hey dementia

Can I make a little suggestion/request? Try using paragraphs, it's much easier for the reader.

Thanking you.

What we have learned is like a handful of earth. What we have yet to learn is like the whole world. (Avvaiyar)
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Post by Tchocolatl » Tue Mar 16, 2004 6:34 am

DP, 'better answer you now.

After having read your text I did not found much to discuss. As I say it happens sometimes. :D I just "listen" if I may say.

"The inevitability of anxiety, guilt, and death" all what the persona is supposed to avoid to appear successful. In another song Leonard Cohen said :

"Ring the bells that still can ring.
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything.
That's how the light gets in."

This touches at the numinous don't you think? The more we can afford to deal with realities, even the less glamourous, the more we are counscious, the more we can find resources in oulselves for creation, I think. :)
"He can love the shape of human beings, the fine and twisted shapes of the heart. It is good to have among us such men, such balancing monsters of love."

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Re: The analysis of "The Captain"

Post by Shubado » Mon Nov 07, 2016 1:49 am

I have always interpreted this song as a post-holocaust Jew's existential, response to "O Captain! my Captain!" by Walt Whitman. Both Whitman's poem and Cohan's Lyrics have the same rhythmic structure and similar themes. In fact the meter of both works is so similar that you can sing the Whitman poem to the tune of the Cohan song. Additionally, they both contain the use of "the Captain" on a war ship as an extended metaphor for leadership and the direction of a nation's course through challenging times.

In Whitman's poem, the Captain represents Abraham Lincoln, while the ship represents America emerging at the end of the Civil War. Whitman had them most unparalleled respect for Lincoln, both as a person and as a leader, and lamented that Lincoln was assassinated before he was able to received the honors he deserved for navigating America through such dark times. Although he is devastated by the death of his captain, the persona in "O Captain! my Captain!" feels a sense of pride for serving under such a great man and attributes the vessel's transcendence "From fearful trip the victor ship" to the Captain's unwavering leadership.

In the Leonard Cohen version, the Captain represents the generation of Jews that endured the holocaust. As the Captain is beaten, but not dead, he represents the immeasurable loss and psychological damage that an entire generation of Jew's felt after WWII. As he transfers command to the poems persona, the persona comments on the absurdity of the gesture, as he sees that his people are in ruins and seems content to accept defeat and walk away. As the two argue, the Captain and the persona exchange judgments on each other; both include imagery that simultaneously, alludes to the horrors of, and trivializes the holocaust. This exchange represents the intergenerational, cognitive dissidence that Jewish communities felt after the war. While a generation that endured WWII argued for military protectionism, the 60's generation argued for peace and love.

As the persona exclaims that "You'll rally me no more. I don't even know what side We fought on, or what for," he is alluding to the existential crisis that so many Jew's of Cohan's generation felt in the face of Jewish statehood. Many younger Jews felt that, as a people that were pushed to the point of extinction while the world watched, Jewish statehood was, at best, an exercise in futility and, at worst, an extension of the Nationalism that caused the holocaust. However, the Captain replies that he has "read the Bill of Human Rights . And some of it was true. But there wasn't any burden left, so [he is] laying it on [him]." At this, the persona realizes that policies set by international communities to prevent future atrocities, have no inherent burden within them to be upheld; consequently, the persona must accept leadership and take on the defense of his people. At this, the persona sees his burden re-conceptualized as, not to fight, but rather to defend. As he pins the silver bars to his shirt, the persona, accepts his responsibility to protect his people's right to exist.

Both the Whitman and Cohan poems address the themes of leadership in defining national identity, yet Cohen complicates the simple nationalist narrative with the inclusion of personal responsibility to upholding a moral standard. After witnessing the effects of nationalist sentiments run amuck during WWII, it is impossible ever conceive statehood or conflict in such black and white terms anymore

O Captain! My Captain! Related Poem Content Details

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!
This 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.
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Re: The analysis of "The Captain"

Post by I'm your fan » Mon Oct 08, 2018 2:05 pm

Did that poem influence, in some way, Leonard Cohen in the writing of "Democracy"?

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State

To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on

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

And in some way, in the writing of Anthem:

Ring the bells that still can ring

That's just a suggestion. But that's only my opinion. I may be wrong...
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