I learned that Robin Williams died today of an apparent suicide. We’ve lost another great talented actor.
I saw Dead Poets Society eight times when it first came out in theaters. I admired Williams’s acting performance in the role of Mr. Keating, an English teacher at a private boy’s preparatory school, who inspired young men to fall in love with poetry. What did I admire about the film? I wasn’t like any of Keating’s pupils. I wasn’t from a wealthy family and wasn’t privileged to attend a prep school. But I loved the soundtrack–Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony–and I loved references to my favorite poets: William Shakespeare, Walt Whitman, Robert Herrick, Lord Byron. That film popularized the motto Carpe Diem–Seize the Day—and like many teenagers at the time I believed that I, too, could seize the day and fashion a future of my own will.
Williams likely had a lot to do with me becoming an English major. His acting performance made me believe in the power of literature. Dead Poets Society was such a beautiful film, and the role he played inspired people to seek solutions, seek consolation, seek redemption in art and culture, to believe in the value of the humanities, the value of ideas and the glory of language. As Mr. Keating, Williams taught us about the power of the written word. He made us believe that teaching can be a respectable profession, especially teaching English, teaching the value of how words can shape our lives and affect hearts and minds. He showed us passion–how genuine, heart-felt expression makes us honest and true–and how a man with a poet’s soul can make a difference. Because of him, we were touched by immortal words and the rhythms of our human condition.
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.
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;Here Captain! dear father!The arm beneath your head!It is some dream that on the deck,You’ve fallen cold and dead.
My Captain does not answer, his lips are pale and still,My father does not feel my arm, he has no pulse nor will,The ship is anchor’d safe and sound, its voyage closed and done,From fearful trip the victor ship comes in with object won;Exult O shores, and ring O bells!But I with mournful tread,Walk the deck my Captain lies,Fallen cold and dead.