What Will Your Verse Be? – Movie Review on Dead Poets Society (1989)

Dead Poets Society is a 1989 American film set in the 1959 Welton Academy, an elite and conservative preparatory school that oberves tradition, honour, discipline, and excellence. John Keating is a former Welton graduate who has recently joined the school as English Literature teacher with unorthodox teaching that centres on critical thinking. Having learned that Keating was a member of the unauthorised Dead Poets Society, which is set to encourage the youth to “seize the day”, his students restart the society and are gradually inspired to pursue their dreams. Among them is Neil, who has discovered his passion in acting and has obtained the main role in a Mid-Summer Night’s Dream production. Tragedy happens when Neil’s father strongly opposes against Neil’s participation in the play and is sending Neil to military school to ensure that he can get into the Harvard Medical School. Devastated by the totalitarian attitude of his father, Neil commits suicide. Another student Cameron blames Keating for leading to Neil’s suicide. Keating eventually leaves the school.

On carpe diem

The society is full of adults, who may have stumbled on challenges and failures when young, directing the youth on how to live out their lives. While wisdom from the aged is precious, it is not absolute truth. Conforming to adults’ expectations may bring stable income, but it kills the passion in hearts, and it will be too late when they realise this. In the first English Literature class, Keating brings the students to look at school photos, capturing boys with similar temperament and confident smiles that the world is their oyster – they have all become fertilising daffodils. Instead of encouraging conformity, Keating’s ideal of carpe diem rings in their minds – “Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”

As Henry Thoreau wrote in Walden,

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion.

To teach the boys to “seize the day”, Keating brings them to the courtyard to stride in personal style. He tells them to rip pages of “Understanding Poetry” out of the book, in which a PhD scholar suggests measuring the greatness of a poem by a mathematical formula. To Keating, one reads poetry as a member of the human race; the passion and artistic impulse of human race cannot be measured by static mathematical formula. Also, proposition of scholars needs not be blindly trusted. Instead of submitting to the authority, “consider what you think.”

However, “sucking the marrow out of life doesn’t mean choking on the bone.” This is what Keating said to Charlie, who has published an article in the school newspaper under the name Dead Poets Society demanding girls be admitted to Welton and made fun of the headmaster Nolan in assembly. While carpe diem means living the most out of life, it does not suggest reckless behaviour  – “there is a time of daring and there is a time of caution, and a wise man understands which is called for.”

On burning with passion and being burnt

However, poetry is unrestrained like fire. Some may create greatness with burning passion, but some may be burnt by the passion itself. What makes the difference? The valour of making concession when necessary, of not taking carpe diem to its extreme. As said, seizing the day does not mean living recklessly. Apart from living life to its fullest, it also means keeping up with the changes in life. When life goes against you for following your heart totally, it may not be a good idea to confront the blockade directly. Sometimes one may gain more in the end by circumventing direct confrontation but solving the problem through other means.

“O Captain! My Captain!”

Subsequent to Neil’s suicide, the headmaster Nolan has started an enquiry into the cause of Neil’s death upon request of his parents. While others may easily realise that the domineering father plays a central part in causing Neil’s suicide, the wrongdoer often refuses to recognise one’s own faults, and will find faults in others to alleviate one’s own guilt, if any. Neil’s father is a good example. Cameron tells the school authority about members of the Dead Poets Society, and puts the blame all on Keating for his unorthodox teaching and zealous ideals. One by one, the members are forced to sign a paper attesting to Cameron’s allegations. The boys sign the paper, understanding that there is nothing they can do. At this stage, they lack the power to change the adults’ mindset. No matter how noble their intention is, with pressure from the school administration, the possible sacrifice of future and the burden of their parents’ expectations, each of them alone in the headmaster’s room is too weak to fight back.

Nolan then takes over the English Literature class. When Keating comes to fetch personal belongings from the classroom, Todd, who was once shy but has discovered his potential in poetry through an improvisation exercise, stands on his desk and says that Neil’s suicide is not Keating’s fault. Keating has before asked the students to try standing on the teacher’s desk, learning to look at things from a different perspective. With Nolan shouting and ordering him to sit down, Todd stands up straight and salutes Keating with the phrase “O Captain! My Captain!”, a poem Walt Whitman wrote to honour Abraham Lincoln.

One by one, the boys stand on their desk, saluting the Captain as he leaves.

“Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,

Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?
                                       Answer.
That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Keating asks, “What will your verse be?”
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