[Originally published Feb. 23, 2014.]
But passion alone, divorced from the thrilling intellectual work of real analysis, is empty, even dangerous. When we simply “feel” a poem, carried away by the sound of words, rather than actually reading it, we’re rather likely to get it wrong. We see Mr. Keating, in fact, making just this kind of mistake during one of his stirring orations to the boys of Welton. In a hackneyed speech about resisting conformity that he seems to have delivered many times before, Keating invokes that oft-invoked but rarely understood chestnut, “The Road Not Taken”: “Robert Frost said, ‘Two roads diverged in a wood and I / I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.’”
Wha—? Has Keating actually read the poem from which he so blithely samples? For Robert Frost said no such thing: a character in his poem says it. And we’re meant to learn, over the course of that poem, that he’s wrong—that he’s both congratulating and kidding himself. He chooses his road ostensibly because “it was grassy and wanted wear”; but this description is contradicted in the very next lines—“Though as for that, the passing there / Had worn them really about the same,” and—more incredibly still—“both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black.” He wants to claim to have taken the exceptional road, if not the spiritual high road; but he knows on some level that it’s a hollow boast.
Keating hasn’t actually read “The Road Not Taken” in any meaningful sense; rather, he’s adopted it, adapted it, made it his own—made it say what he wants it to say. His use of those closing lines, wrenched from their context, isn’t just wrong—it’s completely wrong, and Keating uses them to point a moral entirely different from that of Frost’s poem. (In a like manner, how often has Frost’s “The Mending Wall” been quoted out of context in debates about immigration reform? “Good fences make good neighbors,” indeed.)
So this dude really hates the movie Dead Poets Society. Some of his complaints seem rather uncharitable, but stewing over a movie for a quarter-century can curdle a fellow’s spirit, I suppose. At any rate, I can see one of his points. If I read a poem that grabs me, even if only a certain section of it, I consider it, well, almost a courtesy to find out what the author intended to convey. I’ve long thought that it was a shady dodge when, say, lyricists are deliberately ambiguous about a song’s meaning, saying that it’s more important what the listener makes of it. Goddammit, I already know what I think; that’s not interesting to me at all. I want to know what you were thinking when that came out, I want to be possibly surprised with a different perspective. You were the master craftsman who created that phrase, so I feel like I owe it to you to take a moment and try to inhabit your worldview. This has been a constant theme in my criticism of the SNR phenomenon — look to occasionally challenge what you think; don’t just reinforce it. Whether you’re reading a book or studying an exotic belief, don’t just look for the parts that echo what you already think.
But this pedantic table-pounding over how wrong, completely wrong it is to take a phrase out of context and thereby change the implications of it, well, isn’t that just another form of linguistic prescriptivism? Is that essentially any different than grammar and vocabulary snobs pursing their lips and clenching their buttocks every time popular usage plucks a word away from its roots and pins it upon a lapel? Not to get all postmodernist up in here, but isn’t language and meaning a bit more unstable and free-flowing than that? Granted, it can be annoying to hear a bastardization of meaning due to lack of effort and attention (as a Nietzsche fan, I know this all too well), but on the bright side, doesn’t that just open up an opportunity for a scholar to present an in-depth, soon-to-be-viral article about how “Everything You Think You Know About Whitman And Frost Is Wrong”? And isn’t that spark of passion for the way words can move you the necessary precursor to caring enough to study poems and literature more in-depth?
Besides, the movie, as I remember it, was more broadly about the idealism and romanticism of youth on the brink of conflict with “the way things really are” (possibly about the romanticism of “golden age” myths, too, e.g. “kids today don’t know or care about poetry the way we did in my day…”). Poetry was more proximate than ultimate subject. Keating was attempting to get these high school kids to passionately care about something before the responsibilities of adulthood smothered the opportunity, and poetry happened to be the vehicle he used in this setting. Knox, for instance, is inspired to pursue the girl he thinks is out of his league. Neil is inspired to defy his father and indulge his passion for theater. Todd, the meek wallflower, is inspired to simply assert himself for once. None of that required scholarly precision about a poem’s meaning. In fact, we can just go ahead and connect that final dot and note that Dettmar is actually doing exactly what he’s complaining about — reading his own perspective into the movie, making it say what he wants it to say. The story was about, as Rilke said, how
We see the brightness of a new page
where everything yet can happen.
Unmoved by us, the fates take its measure
and look at one another, saying nothing.
Oh, wait, Rilke was specifically talking about the beginning of the 20th century, with an ominous hint that suggests an uncanny prescience about what tremendous upheavals were to come. Ye gads, what have I done? What sin have I committed against original context? What if, by giving a misleading impression of Rilke’s subject matter, I have set some poor reader up for eventual disillusionment? I can hear Dettmar’s buttocks furiously clenching from here.