It’s nearly lights out at Welton, and the junior boys are carefully planning how to sneak out that night. When Neil goes back to his room, he’s surprised to see an old book on his desk—inside is the name “J. Keating, Dead Poets.” He stays up, reading, until Dr. Hager comes by to turn the lights out.
Keating clearly approves of the Dead Poet Society revival, and leaves his old poetry collection for Neil to discover. Later on, the book will be a crucial piece of evidence, proving that Keating was “involved” in the Dead Poets, even though his role in the society itself is only peripheral.
Hours later, the boys wake up and sneak outside, waving flashlights. Carefully, they go out into the grounds surrounding Welton, until they come to the old cave. Inside, the boys manage to light a fire with candles. Neil calls to order a meeting of the Dead Poets, explaining that he and his friends—except for Todd, who will keep the minutes of the meetings—will read poems.
From the beginning, the Welton students treat the Dead Poets Society as a forbidden, illicit group—simply to hold a meeting, they have to break the rules. Neil quickly takes a leadership role in the Dead Poets, since, as we’ve already seen, he’s especially hungry to defy authority, and particularly attracted to Keating’s ideas.
To begin, Knox tells the boys that he wants success in wooing Chris. To help Knox, Charlie reads a bawdy poem by John Dryden, laughing with glee. Steven Meeks reads a poem by W. E. Henley that includes the line, “I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul.” Neil reads “Ulysses” by Alfred Lord Tennyson, which concludes, “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
The first poems the students read are indicative of the Dead Poets Society’s guiding philosophy. The first, by Dryden, represents the boys’ interest in love and sex. The second, “Invictus,” by Henley, is a famous poem about passion, bravery, and integrity in the face of danger—symbolizing the boys’ courage and will to defy the Welton administration. Finally, “Ulysses,” by Tennyson, is one of the most famous expressions of the “carpe diem” ideal: in the poem, an elderly Ulysses ponders death and concludes that he and his followers should continue to fight and explore the world.
As the evening goes on, the boys become more relaxed and excited with their readings. As Pitts reads from the poetry of Vachel Lindsay, the boys become so energized that they start to dance. Afterwards, they leave the cave and go “back to reality,” as Pitts puts it.
Vachel Lindsay was an early 20th century poet who used his poetry to experiment with African-American music and dance rhythms. (Some critics have faulted the novel for paying homage to Lindsay, noting that Lindsay was often accused of racially-charged condescension.)
The next day, Neil and his Dead Poet friends sit in Mr. Keating’s class, exhausted from their activities. Mr. Keating tells the students, “language was invented for one reason: to woo women.” He alludes to Walt Whitman once again, saying that humans must learn how to let their true natures speak. Suddenly, he jumps up onto his desk, saying, “We must constantly force ourselves to look at things differently.” He invites the students to come to the front of the class, stand on the desk, and then jump down, and they all do so, one by one. Keating ends the class by telling the students to compose a poem for the next class. As the students prepare to walk out, he says, “And don’t think I don’t know this assignment scares you to death, Mr. Anderson.”
Keating emphasizes the romantic qualities of poetry, appealing to the sexually frustrated boys—and also note his assumption that language and poetry must have been invented by men, if their purpose is to “woo women.” Keating’s choice to stand on his desk is a great example of his theatrical approach to teaching—by using comedy and physical performance, Keating is trying to rouse his students into enlightenment, helping them, quite literally, to see the world differently. As Keating’s address to Todd suggests, Keating encourages both originality and bravery in his students—sometimes pressuring them to do things they don’t want to do (much like Neil, pressuring Todd to attend a meeting of the Dead Poets).
After English class, the school day is over—today is a half-day. Pitts and Meeks go to work on their secret project—building a radio. Knox, meanwhile, bikes over to Ridgeway High School. When he arrives at school, he’s surprised to see the students dancing around on a bus—the football team is preparing for a big game. Knox notices Chris and Chet, kissing. He bikes sadly away, wondering if he’ll be able to come up with the words to woo Chris.
Knox remains enthralled with Chris, even though he barely knows her. Keating’s talk of passion and “wooing women,” however, raises the possibility that Knox will be able to win Chris’s affections with words.
That afternoon, Todd sits in his dorm, trying to write a poem and tearing up sheet after sheet in frustration. Suddenly, Neil bursts in, waving a flyer advertising an upcoming production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at Henley Hall. Neil explains that he’s going to try acting—something he’s always been passionate about, despite his father’s strong discouragement. Yelling “Carpe diem!” he claims that he finally knows what he wants out of life.
Todd, we see, is a perfectionist—he can’t write more than a few words of his poem without becoming frustrated. Neil, on the other hands, thinks that he’s finally found his purpose in life—to be an actor. The fact that Neil, by his own admission, doesn’t have much experience with acting at all, raises the question of whether Neil has truly found his passion, or only thinks he has. Certainly, the novel leaves open the possibility that Neil is just carried away with Keating’s lessons, eager to defy his father’s wishes.
Todd nervously asks Neil what his father would say if he found out that Neil was auditioning for a play—irritably, Neil replies, “Whose side are you on, anyway?” Neil accuses Todd of not understanding Mr. Keating’s ideas. Todd tries to convince Neil to leave him alone, but Neil, still excited about acting, says, “No.” Reluctantly, Todd agrees to attend the next Dead Poets meeting that afternoon. Neil himself won’t attend, since he’ll be auditioning for the play.
In this scene, Neil seems to take on Mr. Keating’s persona for Todd—a funny, sometimes irritatingly energetic companion whose job is to push Todd to be more open and true to himself. Much like Keating himself, Neil is a natural leader.