I think it will take a long while to sink in, but I’ve just read the bleak news that the actor Robin Williams has died, possibly at his own hands, and reading this made my eyes well up in sorrow.
When I was a child at primary school in Wales in the 1960s, I was taught how to use and how to appreciate the English language. As the decades have passed, I long ago came to view English as a wonder of creation, but I don’t suppose I need elaborate upon this. I’ve read a huge amount of English poetry and prose in my time, as well as creating works of my own, and the pleasure all this has given me has been indescribable.
I’ve seen the English language deployed to a variety of mesmerising effects, evoking joy, wonderment, melancholy and fury, but the single greatest work of art I can remember is the film Dead Poets Society, in which Robin Williams starred as a teacher who tried – and succeeded – in imbuing his charges with a love of English. It is a supremely uplifting masterpiece and I don’t think I can meaningfully add anything to this, other than to say that by coincidence, I introduced my teenage daughter to it just a month or so ago and we both enjoyed it enormously.
Robin Williams had many other credits to his name, but the other that immediately springs to mind is Good Morning Vietnam, where once again, he used his extraordinary eloquence to such effect. It’s impossible to imagine that a man who was notable for being identified to such an extent with the English language, and who made us all laugh so much, was ultimately driven to take his own life, but this seems to be the reality and it’s made me terribly sad.
God bless you, Robin Williams, and thank you.
“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?”
I’m not surprised that the most eloquent and insightful observation I’ve read on Robin Williams comes from Russell Brand, in a Guardian piece of Tuesday August 12th entitled “Robin Williams’ divine madness will no longer disrupt the sadness of the world“.
“Robin Williams could have tapped anyone in the western world on the shoulder and told them he felt down and they would have told him not to worry, that he was great, that they loved him. He must have known that. He must have known his wife and kids loved him, that his mates all thought he was great, that millions of strangers the world over held him in their hearts, a hilarious stranger that we could rely on to anarchically interrupt, the all-encompassing sadness of the world. Today Robin Williams is part of the sad narrative that we used to turn to him to disrupt.”
Here’s a moving interview with Eddie Izzard, along with a beautiful viral tribute based on “O Captain! My Captain!”
Here’s a BBC feature about people who were inspired to become teachers after seeing Dead Poets Society.