Dead Poets Society Revisited

Join the Dead Poet’s Society. Invitation below.  Wait for it.

You remember the movie. Robin Williams as professor John Keating at Welton – in 1959 – an exclusive academy for young men whose minds are opened with poetry in contrast to the strict teaching curriculum and atmosphere of the school.  

“Savor language and words because no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world.” – John Keating

 What words and ideas are we accepting and how are they changing our world? What words and ideas are we using to change the world? Certain movies as well as books can have powerful inspirational messages, explicit or implicit, that can change our world and inspire us to think and use words to inspire others. 

Then again, if we listen to the words in the news, how are they changing our world? Are they inspiring? Can we listen without being affected?

For me, I have immense inspiration from “dead” poets and writers of the great classics, whose words have wisdom and can be life changing, increasing empathy for humanity.

What stands out in the movie? A character, a location, and a play.

1) Robin Williams
In one of his best performances, Robin Williams shines in this movie. He challenges his students to not play small with their lives, to let poetry inspire them, and to question rigid established structures that stifle free thinking and creativity. 

He is charismatic, and his name echoes the famous English romantic poet John Keats. He was a former student at Welton and a brilliant Rhodes scholar. His teaching included quotes from poems and student participation.

In one scene he shows them the photos of prior students in the hallway, and whispers behind them “Carpe Diem” several times. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may”.

Watching Robin Williams is like revisiting an old friend who makes you laugh, and in this movie, perhaps more. He was an extraordinary comedian and actor. I miss him.

“They’re not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they’re destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable of? Because you see, gentleman, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Listen, you hear it? Carpe. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”

 Keating was once a member of a secret society at Welton – The Dead Poet’s Society – and described the experience to his students who carried on the tradition.  

“We were romantics. We didn’t just read poetry; we let it drip from our tongues like honey. Spirits soared, women swooned, and gods were created, gentlemen. Not a bad way to spend an evening, eh?” – John Keating “The Dead Poets were dedicated to sucking the marrow out of life. That’s a phrase from Thoreau that we’d invoke at the beginning of each meeting. You see, we’d gather at the old Indian cave and take turns reading from Thoreau, Whitman, Shelley—the biggies. Even some of our own verses. And in the enchantment of the moment, we’d let poetry work its magic.” – John Keating

 2) The Cave

The cave was an old Indian cave that was most likely also used by Keating when he was a student. The students would sneak out of their building in the middle of the night, running through the dark forest. Then lighting a candle with one of them smoking a pipe.

“I hereby reconvene the Dead Poets Society. Welton chapter. The meetings will be conducted by myself and the other new initiates now present. Todd Anderson, because he prefers not to read, will keep minutes of the meetings. I’ll now read the traditional opening message by society member Henry David Thoreau. ‘I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.’” – Neil Perry  

“She walks in beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes;
Thus mellowed to that tender light”
Inspired by poetry they began to chant and run back through the woods

 “THEN I had religion, THEN I had a vision.
I could not turn from their revel in derision.

3) Midsummer’s Night Dream

Shakespeare was included in this movie to honor his status as a “dead poet” whose sublime writings still live with us today. Neil, who always wanted to act went against his father’s orders, forging a letter from him allowing participation in the play. He shines, his life is full of enthusiasm and inspiration. He was chosen for the role of Puck.

“Puck as the most important character in the play. The mischievous, quick-witted sprite sets many of the play’s events in motion with his magic, by means of both deliberate pranks on the human characters (transforming Bottom’s head into that of an ass) and unfortunate mistakes (smearing the love potion on Lysander’s eyelids instead of Demetrius’s). More important, Puck’s capricious spirit, magical fancy, fun-loving humor, and lovely, evocative language permeate the atmosphere of the play.”

“O captain, my captain. Who knows where that comes from? Anybody? Not a clue? It’s from a poem by Walt Whitman about Mr. Abraham Lincoln. Now, in this class, you can either call me Mr. Keating or, if you’re slightly more daring, O captain, my captain.” – John Keating

“Savor language and words because no matter what anyone tells you, words and ideas have the power to change the world.” – John Keating

We have the invitation and opportunity to revisit this movie, as well as famous poets and authors whose writing may inspire us. And we are also students, regardless of our age, always learning, not accepting all rigid authoritarian control, being free thinkers, and savoring language and words that can continue to inspire us, now and for the rest of our lives. We can join our own Dead Poet’s Society and choose which writers of poetry, classics and other books or movies can inspire us. Carpe Diem




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