O Captain! my Captain! our fearful trip is done,
The ship has weather’d every rack, the prize we sought is won,
The port is near, the bells I hear, the people all exulting,
While follow eyes the steady keel, the vessel grim and daring;
But O heart! heart! heart!
O the bleeding drops of red,
Where on the deck my Captain lies,
Fallen cold and dead.
Robin Williams made many movies, ranging from the comic Popeye (1980) to the adventure fantasy Jumanji (1995) to Good Will Hunting (1997) for which he won the Best Supporting Award at the Oscars. But the movie that made the most impact in my life must be Dead Poets’ Society (1989). It was the movie that put the poetry back in my life.
Who can forget his portrayal of the rebel of a teacher who decided that education should be something of a life changing experience? And he did it through introducing poetry into the lives of his students in his unconventional way, although the life changing experience ended in tragedy for one of the students because it went against the wishes of the parents who had planned a different route for their son.
It introduced the important lesson of carpe diem…to seize the day, a quote from Horace, a leading Roman poet. “Carpe diem quam minimum credula postero” – “Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow”. It is often mistaken to be a call to live recklessly and with abandonment – “to eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”…. In actual fact, it is an appreciation of today and the moment.
Most importantly, it introduced the place of poetry in one’s life, that inner voice which is the very soul of our being. And Williams’ performance as that radical teacher deeply impressed me.
I remember that at that time, I used to teach Literature to classes of boys just like John Keating did – Keating was Williams’ character in the movie. I longed to be able to move my boys the way he did. Alas, I failed. Maybe it was good anyway, since many of them ended up successful, the Singaporean way….They became doctors, lawyers, bankers….., in careers their parents would be proud of.
Someway down the road, the poetry went out of my life and I was suffering from depression. That was when I chanced upon the DVD of Dead Poets’ Society and bought it. I watched it again. It was one of the things that saved my life and put the poetry back. I had been writing poems for many years before this time but had stopped because of work commitments and somehow, in the way working life in Singapore goes, the light just went out. Watching Dead Poets’ Society again after all these years somehow awoke the poetry in me. I began writing and reading poems again and eventually got out of my depression.
I remember reading Keats’ Ode to a Nightgale again after many years and the tears just came to my eyes with the words:
My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk…
And I just couldn’t stop the tears when I read and re-read the lines:
Fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget
What thou among the leaves hast never known,
The weariness, the fever, and the fret
Here, where men sit and hear each other groan;
Where palsy shakes a few, sad, last gray hairs,
Where youth grows pale, and spectre-thin, and dies;
Where but to think is to be full of sorrow
And leaden-eyed despairs,
Where Beauty cannot keep her lustrous eyes,
Or new Love pine at them beyond to-morrow.
Call it catharsis….my spirits lifted and I felt much better.
The Dead Poets’ Society is far from being a society for dead people. To me death is when the poetry goes out. And Williams was instrumental in bringing the poetry back by being the wonderfully inspiring teacher who stood on the table and shouted with pure gusto, “O Captain! My Captain!”
Yes, Robin Williams has died. But to me the image of him as John Keating, hearing voices from the past that become the poetry of the soul, lives on.
O Captain! my Captain! rise up and hear the bells;
Rise up—for you the flag is flung—for you the bugle trills,
For you bouquets and ribbon’d wreaths—for you the shores a-crowding,
For you they call, the swaying mass, their eager faces turning…
Rest in peace, O Captain, my Captain.