At the end of “Dead Poet’s Society,” Robin Williams, playing the part of inspirational poetry teacher John Keating, opens a well-worn book of poems. He sits alone in his study, the weight of one of his star pupil’s suicide etched on his face, and reads the quote from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden Pond” that Keating himself scribbled on the first page of the book as an idealistic young student in 1942, along with the instructions that it be read at the outset of every meeting of the dead poet’s society:
I went to the woods because I wanted to live deliberately. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life. To put to rout all that was not life; and not, when I had come to die, discover that I had not lived.
At that, Mr. Keating closes the book and puts his head in his hand and sobs — which is how much of the world reacted upon hearing the news that Williams, 63, had taken his own life. I know I did.
“Dead Poet’s Society” is my favorite Williams moment, the only one that really took root in me. I saw it the year it came out, in 1989, in Minneapolis, and that summer I took a group of international students to see and love it while I was an intern at the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, Fla. I’ve seen it a couple times since, the last time being Monday night, during my own private memorial for Mr. Keating via Williams, who taught me and so many others so much with just a few words.
I can’t say for sure that “Dead Poet’s Society” was my introduction to Thoreau, but I know for sure it captured a romance with writing, reading, and the natural world that lives and breathes in me to this day. To be sure, if there’s any good to come from William’s shocking passing, it’s the fact that by Monday night, Thoreau quotes were flying around the Internet like so many selfies, and millions of movie goers came to realize it was Williams/Keating who taught us the meaning of “carpe diem,” the Latin phrase for “seize the day.”
It happens in the very first scene we see Keating/Williams, as he stands in front of a trophy case with his class of impressionable but already buttoned-downed future barons of industry at the dawn of the ’60s. Pointing to yellowing photos of former students, he implores the young bucks to reject conformity and to think for themselves.
“They’re not that different from you, are they?” says Mr. Keating. “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? Because, you see gentlemen, 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.”
I got the message the year I graduated college and set off to be a writer. It dovetailed with the same anti-establishment barbaric yawps of punk and college rock I cut my teeth on in the ’80s, and, during the Reagan years, it spoke to me about what sensitive artists are up against in a world of competition and commerce. “O captain, my captain,” the lads address Keating via Walt Whitman, and so did I, sitting in the front row of Keating’s classroom and ingesting whole his lesson of the human spirit as something unquenchable and the human soul as something to be protected from too much outside stimuli and influence.
“Boys you must strive to find your own voice,” he memorably implores, “because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out!”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard such a missive, but it turns out it was one of the most profound, and sitting here now in the coffee shop as Lorde’s cover of the Replacements’ “Swingin’ Party” plays over the PA while next to me a loud table of businessmen talk strategy and synergy and inspiration-thirsty teachers everywhere gather their rosebuds while they may as a new school year approaches, it seems to me the words of Keating/Williams shouldn’t be forgotten, even if the man who gave them life is now only with us in spirit:
“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. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! … of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless… of cities filled with the foolish; what good amid these, O me, O life?’ Answer: That you are here — that life exists, and identity; that the powerful play [italicson]goes on[italicsoff] and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”
Jim Walsh lives and grew up in East Harriet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org