Wednesday, 13 August 2014

Robin Williams and Walt Whitman: 'O Me! O Life!'

Robin Williams in Canada, 2004. Photo by Darsie. Used under Creative Commons license

O ME! O LIFE! (Walt Whitman)

Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,
The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What good amid these, O me, O life?

That you are here - that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

By now everyone has heard about the tragic death of actor Robin Williams a couple of days ago. Comic actors are not usually my favourite actors, but nearly everyone loved Robin Williams, and for my generation he was an inevitable part of our lives. The fact that he took his own life feels particularly sad and hard to come to terms with.

In Dead Poets Society, Williams' character John Keating quotes Whitman's 'O Me! O Life!' in part. He prefaces it with one of my favourite quotations about poetry, by anyone: "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."

I first saw Dead Poets Society when I was 13 or 14 (a few years after it first came out) and it made a deep impression. I loved its passion and drama and I feel sure that it sent me at least a small step of the way along the road to becoming a poetry lover. I watched it again recently for the first time in years and I still enjoyed it. Dead Poets Society is often criticised for mixed messages and for a facile view of the humanities, even for being manipulative. The fact is, though, that all art is manipulative in some way, and the messages I got from Dead Poets Society were: love poetry, live life to the full, be an inspiring teacher if that's your vocation. Not bad things.

I like Whitman's poem because anyone can find common ground in it. Regardless of our choices in life, our beliefs, and so on, most of us find life challenging and often sad, most of us are often disappointed in ourselves. Here Whitman says - keep trying, contribute a verse. They are beautiful and helpful words. Many people will be thinking of them this week and wishing that Robin Williams could have found a way.