“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.”
This quote is one of many powerful lines delivered by Professor John Keating (Robin Williams) throughout Dead Poets Society, but it has the greatest meaning for another main character, Neil (Robert Sean Leonard). The story follows Neil, his roommate Todd, and their friends as Keating attempts to expand their minds at a strict prep school in New England. This is a school that prides itself on creating doctors and lawyers, but Keating wants the boys to be poets. His passion inspires Neil into reviving the Dead Poets Society. This was an organization Keating led where a group of students snuck out at night to read poetry, both classics and their own.
It is clear that the rest of the faculty disapprove of Keating’s unorthodox teaching method. It is a place concerned with tradition and reputation. This weighs especially heavily on Todd and Neil. Todd lives in the shadow of his valedictorian older brother, and desires the attention of his parents. Neil is the opposite; he wishes his overbearing father would let him participate in extra-curricular activities.
The film has mostly been praised, but there are some that reject the film as based on pandering to an audience without really practicing the ideals it teaches. Should the humanities really be devoid of all academic weight? One article I read points out that Keating actually takes some of his quotes and lines out of context.
I would argue that this is irrelevant. The idea is to inspire people to read poetry, to view the humanities in a way that doesn’t show them as worthless. Perhaps a few people will be turned away from this brand of non-critical reading of literature, but what about someone that is inspired and instead decides to at the very least try to understand these works. Of course a poem or novel doesn’t just mean whatever a person wants, and there are ways to examine and study literature academically, but the study of poetry is not the reason I love poetry. I want to study English because it is beautiful, because it stirs something in me that I can’t quite escape. This might be a mere feeling, but I will not apologize for having a gut reaction to art. There is something to be argued for both the appreciation of art and the academic value of art.
Aside from all the arguments of whether the movie inspires true interest in real humanities and non-conformity, there exists the quote I began with. The end of the movie (spoiler) has Neil killing himself after his father catches him in a play and makes him end it. His father takes away his love, beauty, poetry, and, indirectly, his life. The scene where Todd is told what happened shows him running out into the snow. Neil had not just been inspired, but also an inspiration. He encouraged Todd, kept him from quitting, invited him into the Dead Poets. At a loss for words, Todd stares out at the ice covered lake and the snowy Vermont landscape. Just as Neil died without art, so too is the world a little colder for loss of an artist and a friend.