The first time I saw The Dead Poets Society was the day after Robin Williams died. It was at the urging of someone who said carpe diem, which I later realized was a reference to the film.
There is a scene in the movie where John Keating, the beloved English teacher played by Robin Williams, takes his class outside to walk around in a courtyard to “illustrate the point of conformity,” as he says. He directs three boys to start walking around, and as their steps all fall into the same rhythm, he says, “Ah, there it is.” He tells them to stop. “If you’ll notice, everyone started off with their own stride, their own pace,” he tells the young men. We all crave acceptance, he goes on, but despite “the difficulty of maintaining your own beliefs in the face of others,” we must resist conformity. He quotes Robert Frost: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— / I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.”
From the context, it’s clear that Mr. Keating means to emphasize the non-conforming choice of the speaker in the poem, that choosing the fork in the road “less traveled by” changed everything. But Mr. Keating forgets, perhaps, the penultimate stanza.
“And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
The road “less traveled by” is, in fact, not so different at all from the other road, and his choice, almost arbitrary, was final. No do-over, no second chance: The speaker will likely never return to find what was on that other road, though he wishes he could. This lesson might be even more appropriate in a film whose main act of defiance ends in a suicide. Neil Perry (Robert Sean Leonard), emboldened by Mr. Keating’s lessons in non-conformity, performs in a play against his domineering father’s will; after his father berates him, he shoots himself, the most binding example of how “way leads on to way,” precluding doubling back.
Mr. Keating is blamed for the suicide and fired, and in the final scene, as the boys remaining at the school stand on their desks in his honor when he leaves the classroom for good, we see an insignificant act of defiance. “I want you to find your own walk right now,” Mr. Keating told them in that courtyard as he challenged them not to fall into step, without urging any serious defiance. “O Captain! my Captain!” they say as they stand on the desks, citing a poem addressed to a captain dead on the deck of his ship. “Rise up — for you the flag is flung — for you the bugle trills,” the speaker continues, begging the dead captain to join the celebration.
Sometimes we lie to ourselves that an arbitrary choice has made all the difference, and sometimes the bells ring and the people exult even though the captain “lies, / Fallen cold and dead.” Sometimes all we can do is honor the fallen. This is the message of Dead Poets Society, and it seems sadly true today.