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Tracing Whitman in the Film Dead Poets’ Society

Dead Poets’ Society follows the story of a group of students at Welton Academy, a
conservative school marked by tradition and discipline. Students have to do what they
are supposed to do, there is no opportunity for free thought. Mr.Keating’s classes are
essentially different to that principle. He encourages them to make their lives
extraordinary, which is in contrast to the school traditional values by which students are
forced to be practical and conformist.
Walt Whitman plays an obvious and vital role in Dead Poets Society, he and his poems
are mentioned throughout all the film. However the most notable aspect is that the
whole film could serve as an illustration of Whitman’s ideas.
Whitman’s beliefs of free thinking are seen in Keating and transmitted by him to the
boys. These ideas regarding ‘carpe diem’ and the development of the individual have a
great influence on them. As Whitman could have served as an inspiration to American
society, Keating served as an inspiration to his students.
For instance, when he makes the boys rip out the pages where how to understand
poetry is explained. He does not agree with that mathematical method of measuring
the excellence of a poem. By contrast, he wants his students to think by themselves.
As Whitman expresses in Song of Myself ‘You shall no longer take things at second or
third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor take things from me, you shall
listen to all sides and filter them from yourself’.
This idea could also be observed when Keating stands on his desk to spur students to
look at life from a different perspective. He tells his students to ‘’not only consider what
the author thinks but also what you think’’, animating them to find their own voice.
Other representative scene is that of Mr. Keating quoting Whitman: “That you are here
—that life exists and identity; that the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute
a verse”. ‘’What will your verse be?’’ asks the teacher, motivating students to find their
own path and make their lives to have a purpose.
Moreover, when Todd is called to read his poem aloud and he refuses Keating uses
this verse of Song of Myself ‘’I sound my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of the world’’
to make him to give that yawp. Finally Todd succeeds in producing a poem by himself,
which surprises the class.
These liberating ideas of Whitman embodied By Keating have a great impact on all the
boys: Knox finds the strength to declare his love to Chris, Neil Perry decides to follow
his dream of being an actor despite his father’s prohibition…
The famous final scene in which students stand on their desks and honour Keating by
using Whitman’s ‘’O captain! My captain!’’ shows how they defy authority and do what
they feel.
They break tradition and behave as free individuals being at the same time a whole
class. It is precisely with this line of Whitman where the climax is achieved and the
results of free thinking are shown resulting in a very inspiring scene. It is worth pointing
out that is Todd, characterized by his shyness and fear to expose himself, who takes
the initiative despite the consequences it could have.
Irene Aparicio García T1
Sources
http://www.gradesaver.com/dead-poets-society

https://riekenffxi.wordpress.com/2008/10/29/individualism-and-dead-poets-society/

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45477/song-of-myself-1892-version

https://www.ukessays.com/essays/education/the-movie-dead-poets-society-education-
essay.php

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/51568/o-me-o-life

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