Dead Poets Society: a film review

“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.”
      – Walt Whitman, 1865, 2004, O Me! O Life!, in Leaves of Grass

Thoroughly inspiring and somewhat infuriating, Dead Poets Society is one of my favorite films of all time. It is a story about a group of young boys studying at a highly prestigious school whose lives are forever changed upon encountering their new English teacher who is absolutely ingenious.

Dead Poets Society really captures everything wrong with the education system and those unquestionable obligations put forth by parents or authority. At the very start of the film we are introduced to the four pillars of the highly prestigious school that just about make me sick. They are: tradition, honor, discipline, and excellence. Those four pillars are of utmost importance at Welton Academy and convey precisely what is required for the students to succeed at the curriculum and go on to become a man embraced by society.

So when Charlie, one of the young boys (evidently somewhat inspired by his new English teacher), once published an article in the school newspaper under the club name “Dead Poets Society” demanding that girls be admitted to Welton Academy, that of course caused some uproar on the part of the school headmaster, Mr. Nolan.

In the beginning again, for the new year at the highly prestigious Welton Academy, we see expectations floating all around. There are many subtle cues: for instance in the paintings of the school and in the first of the four pillars (“Tradition”) at Welton Academy and then more explicit cues of aspirations already set out for the students who are to become civil men carrying the light of tradition with them.

Neil Perry, one of the main young boys, bends to the will of his strict father even when it means going totally against his own delight; unquestioningly, for Neil knows (or does he?) that his honorable father knows what is best for him. All the young boys at Welton must feel weighed down under the load of duty and obligation.

“We expect great things from you,” Neil’s father says to him at the beginning of the year. This subtle line, for me, captures the essence of Neil’s father’s mistake. (Foreshadowing, am I?)

The very first lecture given by the new English teacher doesn’t even happen in class. John Keating – the new teacher — comes into class and leaves without saying a word. Then he pops his head back in and asks the students to come on out of the class. Strange. But then the students follow Mr. Keating to the equivalent of a hall of fame of past year students. That’s where the first lecture begins. Carpe diem, Keating says. “Seize the day, boys; make your lives extraordinary.”

Other lectures include ripping out textbook pages, standing on desks, shouting poetry while kicking footballs, walking like a duck, yawping like a barbarian, and contributing a verse.

Keating reaches out to his bored and passive students, ultimately inspiring them to look at life from new perspectives and to pursue their dreams. He uses poetry to preach the importance of individuality and nonconformity.

“That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.”

O Me! O Life! is an astoundingly optimistic poem. In the powerful play that goes on, you may contribute a verse. Isn’t that beautiful? “What will your verse be?”

Walt Whitman hated regular rhyme and meter; the general structure of poetry. He is considered the father of free-verse poetry. By definition, free verse does not “proceed by a strict set of rules … is not a literary type, and does not conform to a formal structure.” Now it becomes apparent why his poems are included in the film.

Dead Poets Society sparked in me a love for poetry. I was unaware that poetry was so beautiful and thought-provoking until I experienced it after watching and being inspired by this heavily poetic film. School does a good job hindering that spark of interest in good poetry when it makes you remember lines from a demoralizing poem and to put them all out on a piece of paper. No wonder I didn’t really have a thing for poetry until Dead Poets Society. And no wonder that most think of it as just another subject to get through in school. Rather unfortunate.

All powerful themes in Dead Poets Society seem to stem from a central one: Death. Seize the day, “gather ye rosebuds while ye may”, for you never know when death just gets you.

Building up to the end of the film, an entirely tragic and unforeseen event takes place. I do not want to reveal it for those who haven’t seen the film yet. For those who have, we know how devastating it is.

I have so many favorite scenes in Dead Poets Society that they pretty much add up to the entire movie. But the end, the end is simply extraordinary.

The end is extremely emotional but actually ironic. Ironic because something central to Mr. Keating’s philosophy is the idea of non-conformity. But he was addressed as O Captain! My Captain!, alluding to another of Whitman’s poems. A captain sails a ship and his orders are enforced. Mr. Keating is nothing like a captain. We can’t even call him a guide and fill in his wonderful character. He is just an extraordinarily compassionate man, we could perhaps say.

The movie is heavily emotional. Almost certainly the most I’ve cried and actually felt while watching a film. 

Now when I sit down to actually review the movie, I find aspects of it to criticize. It is powerfully inspiring, but it contradicts itself. It explains the beauty of poetry through a select few pieces but does not take into account the other significant reasons to study literature.

Keating picks out those lines of poetry that appeal most to his life’s philosophy without considering the consequences of context.

The film does not invite analysis. It is powerful and inspiring but it does not encourage us to think for ourselves about the aspects of the film. And why are Keating’s students worshiping him when it is based on non-conformity?

Dead Poets Society stirs emotion and silences reason. Perhaps that’s why it’s so good. 

“Make your lives extraordinary.”

See also:

Arjun Khemani, 2022, ‘Dead Poets Society: a film review’, https://www.takingchildrenseriously.com/dead-poets-society-a-film-review/

1 thought on “Dead Poets Society: a film review”

  1. Given that Dead Poets Society clearly speaks to so many vibrantly brilliant young people (not to mention that it inspires in some young people a love of poetry) perhaps my negative view of the film is missing something. I do find Arjun’s review beautiful and charming, and this review has inspired me to read and engaging with poetry again.

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