I have understood all too well that we only have so much time to live, but there’s a thought that comes after that quote that makes it all better, “Not yet.” At this glorious moment we are alive, breathing, with blood rushing through fueling our minds to endless possibilities. Carpe diem: seize the day. Gather ye rosebuds while ye may. I hate to think of a wasted day, the sun setting and having nothing of interest to mark the day with. There’s so much to see, feel, create, understand and be, I want to do a little everyday. To share any piece of life, even these feeble words you read, make it all the more meaningful.
In director Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society, this theme of carpe diem is all the more vibrant in an all boys prep school that looks like it was build to suck the vitality out of all who enter its stone walls. Welton Academy operates under strictly under their four pillars: Tradition, Honor, Discipline, and Excellence. Todd Anderson (Ethan Hawke) is a painfully shy new boy, sent to Welton by his parents to live up to his older brother’s valedictorian status. He is assigned to room with Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), an ambitious, vibrant and popular boy who’s stuck under his father’s strict thumb to one day become a doctor. The boys and their friends become inspired by the new English teacher, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams), an alum of Welton who once ran a club called Dead Poets Society.
Keating runs a classroom that makes all the other teachers look already dead and forgotten. He tells his students that the introduction of their textbook on poetry is “excrement” and has them tear it out. At one point, he stands on his desk, not to feel taller, but to gain a new perspective, teaching his students to always try to see things differently. Many of his lessons take place outdoors, a favorite of mine is where they read a line of poetry then kick a soccer ball. It doesn’t seem enough to sit quietly and read, but to let it move you, literally.
Neil decides to resurrect the Dead Poets Society, where the boys sneak out at night to read poetry, tell ghost stories and smoke in the nearby caves. As the boys become more inspired by Keating’s teachings on carpe diem, they become more immersed in the club and find their own ways to seize the day. Neil decides to go against his father’s guidance and tries out for a local production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, earning the lead role. It’s a proud moment that Keating builds Neils confidence on, but his father is ready to hand Neil some devastating consequences to snuff out his dreams of acting.
It is beautiful to see these boys discover their individual voices and know that artistic intellect carries worth. Most of them are on a route to become lawyers, doctors and bankers. Those are all respectable fields to be proud of, no doubt, but as Keating tells them, “Poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for.” Giving these boys the tools to give their life more meaning than plaques, diplomas and their name on a fancy office door is all the more honorable.
It’s nice to think of teenage boys still being inspired by their teachers and reading poetry. I wished that happened more often, but I don’t honestly see a group of seventeen year old boys gathering together to read Whitman and Thoreau today. Maybe alone somewhere, hiding the poetry like it was a Playboy. Perhaps this is just a shift in the times. Today, my brother and his friends get together to worship their classic rock idols and have become damn good teen musicians. Life’s marrow doesn’t only come from an impressive vocabulary in manicured stanzas, it’s whatever makes you feel alive.
“Carpe diem, seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary.”