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The Phrase 'Carpe Diem' and Its Interpretations

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The phrase “carpe diem,” or “seize the day,” is commonly used as an inspiration for books, movies, poems, and many different types of art. But what does this phrase mean? Where did it come from? What are some examples of this phrase being used? Taking a look at movies such as Dead Poets Society and other sources can help answer these questions.

The phrase “carpe diem” was first found in Odes Book I, written by the poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, more commonly known as Horace. (Martin) In Odes, Horace wrote: “Dum loquimur, fugerit invida Aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero”. This translates as “While we’re talking, envious time is fleeing: pluck the day, put no trust in the future”. Lord Byron, a British poet, was the man who used the phrase in a way that made others begin using it more. In his work ‘Letters’ (written in 1817, published in 1830 by Thomas Moore), he wrote, “I never anticipate, – carpe diem – the past at least is one’s own, which is one reason for making sure of the present”. (Martin).

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The meaning of the phrase “carpe diem” is usually interpreted as “seize the day”. Latin translators, however, will tell you that “carpe diem” actually translates to “pluck the day,” “pluck” referring to picking fruit. (Martin). Horace’s injunction “carpe diem quam minimum credula postero,” translated literally, means “pluck the day, trusting as little as possible in the next one”. (Britannica). Many people have shortened this statement to just “carpe diem,” and everyone translates it to “seize the day”.

“Carpe diem” is the inspiration for several poems, the main phrase for movies, or the motto of new books. Poems such as Robert Herrick’s To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time, the first stanza of which says:

  • Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
  • Old Time is still a-flying;
  • And this same flower that smiles today
  • Tomorrow will be dying.

This stanza is the same one that Mr. John Keating had Gerard Pitts read aloud during his first lesson on poetry in the movie Dead Poets Society. This lesson ended with Mr. Keating telling his students to “carpe diem,” seize the day. The main phrase of Dead Poets Society might just be “carpe diem”. Several of the characters in this movie seem to take this phrase to heart, some of those characters being Knox Overstreet, Todd Anderson, and Neil Perry. Knox Overstreet, a few nights after Keating’s lesson, went to the Danbury’s house. When Chet Danbury’s girlfriend, Chris Noel, opened the door, Knox seemed to fall in love. Towards the end of the movie, Knox gets the nerve to ask Chris to go to the play with him, and she agrees. Knox used the idea of “carpe diem” to steel his nerves and ask out the girl he likes. Neil Perry, in the beginning, always did what his parents wanted and followed his dad’s orders. After Keating’s lesson, however, he discovered a love of acting and poetry. Coming up with the idea to reboot the Dead Poets Society and act in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Neil lies to his parents and the school, faking a letter from his father giving permission to act in the play while the Dead Poets Society meets in secret. During his big performance as Puck, the lead in the play, Neil’s father shows up. After an argument with his parents, Neil goes to bed, only to end his life later that night. Neil had used “carpe diem” to act on his newfound love of acting, and to defy his father for once. Todd Anderson was a shy, anxious kid at the beginning of the movie. After Keating’s lesson, he began coming out of his shell, befriending Neil and his group of friends and joining the unofficial reboot of the Dead Poets Society. By the end of the movie, he has gained a lot of confidence. After Keating is fired and is about to leave the classroom for the last time, Todd takes “carpe diem” to heart and stands on his desk, saying “O captain, my captain,” and telling Keating that Neil’s death wasn’t his (Keating’s) fault. This inspires other students to stand on their desks, giving Mr. Keating one last salute.

Citations

  1. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Carpe Diem”. Edited by Aakanksha Gaur et al., Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 6 Apr. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/carpe-diem.
  2. Herrick, Robert. “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”. Poets.org, Academy of American Poets, 7 Oct. 2015, www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/virgins-make-much-time.
  3. Martin, Gary. “‘Carpe Diem’ – the Meaning and Origin of This Phrase”. Phrasefinder, www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/carpe-diem.html.

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