Why ‘Dead Poets Society’ Still Matters

Aug. 11 marks the four-year anniversary of actor and comedian Robin Williams’ death. I’ve been thinking about the man lately, especially with the recent publication of David Itzkoff’s 550-page biography Robin and the new documentary, Robin Williams: Come Inside My Mind, which debuted on HBO earlier this month.

One of my all-time favorite films is Dead Poets Society, the Peter Weir-directed story of an English teacher who arrives at a stuffy private academy in Vermont in 1959 and uses poetry to inspire his students. Williams played  teacher John Keating, and among the students were future stars Ethan Hawke and Josh Charles. The film (which won an Oscar for best original screenplay in 1990) made me want to be a writer more than just about anything else.

The movie is loaded with memorable lines about the art of writing and using words — many of them spoken by Williams’ character. They still apply today and include such imperatives as finding your voice, defining your purpose and understanding why words still matter. Here are four of the best:


1. ‘Change the World’

Keating: “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.”


2. ‘Find Your Own Voice’

Keating: “Now, when you read, just don’t consider what the author thinks. Consider what you think. Boys, you must strive to find your own voice. Because the longer you wait to begin, the less likely you are to find it at all. Thoreau said, ‘Most men lead lives of quiet desperation.’ Don’t be resigned to that. Break out! … Dare to strike out and find new ground!”


3. ‘What Will Your Verse Be?’

Keating: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. 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. To quote from Whitman, ‘O me! O life! … Of the questions of these recurring; of the endless trains of the faithless … Of cities filled with the foolish; 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. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. What will your verse be?”


4. ‘A Barbaric Yawp’

Just watch this:

(Special thanks to IMDb.)