Throwback Thursday: Dead Poets Society

August 14, 2014

Dead Poets Society and One of the Many Verses Robin Williams Contributed

A world without Robin Williams has left me, like many, contemplating his immense and impressive body of work. What joy and laughter he brought us, when it seems he wanted to experience those more himself. As someone who has struggled with depression off and on, I know that battle. One of my weapons has been writing, poetry in particular. That probably explains why of all the roles Williams portrayed, I keep coming back to his turn as John Keating in Dead Poets Society.

Though it has been twenty-five years since its release, the movie’s effects have been long lasting. For me and others, judging by the articles and posts making their rounds. Peter Weir’s film paints poetry as dynamic and motivating, something that inspires us to “suck out all the marrow of life.”  The way Robin Williams as Mr. Keating makes us feel the poems went far beyond anything I had experienced before seeing the movie.

Mr. Keating’s unique methods are illuminated when he orders the class to rip out the introduction of their text which proposes to measure poetry on a graph.  Disbelieving at first, they tear the pages reluctantly, then with greater fervor. He speaks to the boys of why poetry exists: “Poetry, beauty, romance…these are what we stay alive for.”  Then he quotes Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life,” its last line “the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse” sending a hand-written letter to my heart. The entire scene is beautiful and moving and relevant to this day, as illustrated by its use in this iPad Air commercial:

Other stand-out scenes:

  • Mr. Keating instructs the boys to stand on his desk to get a different perspective, urging them to “Strive to find your own voice” because “the longer you wait to begin, the less likely to find it at all.”
  • He takes the students outside to a playing field and offers them slips of paper.  Each one contains a line of poetry the boys must yell before kicking the ball and running off.
  • When one student, Todd, tells Mr. Keating he didn’t complete the assignment to write an original poem, the boy has to stand in front of the class and yawp. Mr. Keating tells Todd to use the picture of Walt Whitman as a guide and say whatever comes into his head. Covering Todd’s eyes and spinning him around, the result is a “sweaty-toothed madman…mumbling truth like a blanket that always leaves your feet cold.”

And of course, the final scenes. After one of the boys commits suicide, the other members of the Dead Poets Society are manipulated into signing a statement laying the blame on Mr. Keating. The headmaster, Mr. Nolan, takes over the English class, praising the very same essay the boys earlier ripped from their books. His attitude in this finale and throughout the film fosters conformity, a direct contrast to what Mr. Keating tries to instill in his students. From the first moment Keating comes whistling into their class, beckoning the boys to follow, he encourages them to embody the idea of carpe diem and seize the day. He wants them to think for themselves, stand up for themselves.

When Mr. Keating comes into the classroom for the final time to collect the last of his things, many of his students stand up for him. It’s a perfect ending for an imperfect situation, making me want to join them, so I can also salute, “Captain! My captain!” Watching it again, knowing Robin Williams is no longer with us, makes me hope he had some idea of the gift he gave us in characters that live on, both on and off the screen.


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