In “My Sad Captains’, Gunn portrays the legends of history as the epitomes of determination but without any social inclination or purpose. Like stars in the sky, they continue to shine in the universe of history; but their existence serves no purpose. These sad captains thus thrive in a nihilistic arena were no meaningful role can be attributed to them. They are distant and disinterested as stars. The poem thus verges on Sartrean existentialism. They are in total opposition and contrast to the motorcyclists in Thom Gunn’s “On the Move” who found meaning in their attitude and the journey that they undertook. The title can be traced to Antony and Cleopatra. It echoes the predicament of Antony living for the sake of the present, without focusing towards the future. He is forced to move forward without having anything to look forward to; as he has lost the company of Cleopatra. The title is also significant as a captain is the leader of the ship; he steers all the people on board to their prescribed destination. Here, the captains are sad because they do not possess any practical value any longer.

The poet seems to suggest the randomness of thought and situation as he states that the stars began to appear one by one. They start shining late, as though they did not serve any true meaning when they did live. Or, the poet may refer to the fact how people realized their significance long after they were dead. Some are remembered through ‘historical names’-through the significance that history imparted them with. The others are known by a few friends –through associations. Critics point out how Gunn drew these friends from symbols who were spiritual models to the poet: Elvis Presely, James Dean, Marlon Brando.etc. The fame of certain stars like Napoleon Bonaparte manifested itself late.-Before these stars fade from the galaxy they stand ‘embodied’; they stand embodied with virtues to be idealized but serve no practical purpose. They verge towards and fade in the darkness of nullity. The past is their claim to fame and lap them like a cloak of chaos attributing them with all sort of heroic actions in the whirlpool of assumptions of history where there are no factual pauses. Gunn was incorrigibly obsessed with existentialism; therefore, he asserts how the renown of these men were bound by a string of convulsions embodying wasteful forces. One frantic action led to another like a chain reaction not producing anything much significant; only wasting invaluable energy in the process.

“They remind me, distant now.”Note that they are distant both in time and space; they only serve as a remembrance. They are not at rest yet, because the memories still linger limited to their orbits. Though, these memories are ‘apart;’ they are divorced from present considerations. They are by themselves perfect and unreal: as they appear to be winnowed from failure and therefore secure from letdowns. The poet emphasizes here how the stories of failures are more significant lessons than stories of success. The removal of failures had therefore placed them far away from veracity.

©Rukhaya MK 2010

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