When I was a kid, maybe 8 or 9 years old, my brother told me I should watch Dead Poets Society. I had no idea what it was about, but the name sounded interesting. I was too young at the time to really care about thought-provoking cinema, so I never ended up watching it. Until now, that is.
It’s about a group of high school seniors at an all-boys ivy league prep school in the US. The school year begins and they’re assigned to an English class with Jack Keating (Robin Williams) as their teacher. Keating is an eccentric free-thinker who urges his students to carpe diem, and they all do in their own way. The inspirational teachings of Keating charges them to open their hearts and minds to their true selves. He teaches them to make the most out of every day, to follow their dreams and not let anything get in their way.
The movie is loaded with sage wisdom. In one of the classroom seasons with Keating, he tells his class,
“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.”
I have studied both journalism and chemistry and when I heard this it struck me like a sledgehammer. Science is necessary for our civilization to endure. It has made the high-tech world we live in. But what is life without joy and passion? What is life with no conviction, no love, no beauty? Science and art may be two separate things, but they are both intrinsic to the human condition. We have things like poetry and music and theatre to make our bleak world shine brighter.
These prep school kids are irrevocably changed by the free-thinking Keating explain to them what The Dead Poets Society was- a secret group where they would read poetry and play music and tell stories hidden in a cave far away from the school late into the night. The students discover the joy of poetry and evoke the spirits of the old masters like Shakespeare and Whitman. The ritualistic gatherings put them all on paths of self discovery and illumination as the words on the page take them over and transform them in conductors of creativity and lore.
He introduced them to the world a poetry, something that none of them ever cared for, and taught them how to live life as its meant to be lived: with passion and verve. Watching the transformation each of these characters undergoes is inspiring, especially with the two main characters Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) and Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard).
The class is given an assignment to write their own poem, and when the time comes for everyone to recite their verse in front of the class Anderson confesses that he has nothing. But Keating wouldn’t have it. He, through forceful guidance, induces Anderson to create a poem on the spot and it ends up being the most profound work to be read in that scene. He even surprised himself.
Perry’s story, on the other hand, is grim. His controlling father wants him to become a doctor, but his heart isn’t in it. Through the inspirational teachings of Keating he connects to his deep desire to become and actor and lands a role in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is thrilled and ecstatic, but his father is furious upon finding out that his son won’t follow his own rigid vision. His father condemningly tells him to drop out of the play, but Perry doesn’t and ends up putting on a brilliant performance that amazes his peers. His father, however, wouldn’t let his son seize the day and the end result is heartbreaking tragedy.
The story is beautiful and sorrowful, victorious and tragic. To really live you have to suck the marrow out of life, but be careful not to choke on the bones.