5 Times Poetry Went to the Movies

The Untold Want (W. Whitman)

Features in: Now, Voyager (1942)

 The untold want by life and land ne’er granted,
Now, voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

 The Untold Want, from Walt Whitman’s seminal Leaves of Grass, captures a wind-in-your-hair, spray-of-the-sea sort of freedom. The freedom to go out into the great big world, armed with nothing but the faint conviction that you’ll be all right after all. Now, Voyager (1942) is an empowering story of a woman who embarks on a sea voyage, and who returns a stronger, wiser, kinder of herself. Bette Davis, as ever, is magnificent.

Arethusa (P. B. Shelley) 

Features in: Roman Holiday (1953)



Arethusa arose
From her couch of snows
In the Acroceraunian mountains, —
From cloud and from crag,
With many a jag, Shepherding her bright fountains,
She leapt down the rocks,
With her rainbow locks, Streaming among the streams; —
Her steps paved with green
The downward ravine
Which slopes to the western gleams;
And gliding and springing
She went, ever singing, In murmurs as soft as sleep;
The Earth seemed to love her,
And Heaven smiled abover her, As she lingered towards the deep.



And now from their fountains
In Enna’s mountains,
Down one vale where the morning basks,
Like friends once parted
Grown single-hearted,
They ply their watery tasks.
At sunrise they leap
From their cradles steep
In the cave of the shelving hill;
At noontide they flow
Through the woods below
And the meadows of asphodel;
And at night they sleep
In the rocking deep
Beneath the Ortygian shore;–
Like spirits that lie
In the azure sky
When they love but live no more. 

Beyond being the subject of an amusing Keats-Shelley exchange between Joe Bradley an intoxicated Princess Ann, Arethusa is an interesting counterpoint to the plot of Roman Holiday. If Ann is Arethusa enjoying an idyllic little romp, then Joe is Alpheus, underscoring the more predatory aspects of the film. Nonetheless, the final stanza is fitting. Like Roman Holiday itself, it traces the course of a single day, and ends with the bittersweet revelation of an enduring love.


A Leave-Taking (A. G. Swinburne)

Features in: Long Day’s Journey Into Night (1962)

As written in the Eugene O’Neill text:

Let us rise up and part; she will not know. 
Let us go seaward as the great winds go, 
Full of blown sand and foam; what help is here? 
There is no help, for all these things are so, 
And all the world is bitter as a tear. 
And how these things are, though ye strove to show, 
         She would not know. 

Let us go hence, my songs; she will not hear. 
Let us go hence together without fear; 
Keep silence now, for singing-time is over, 
And over all old things and all things dear. 
She loves not you nor me as all we love her. 
Yea, though we sang as angels in her ear, 
         She would not hear. 

Let us go hence, go hence; she will not see. 
Sing all once more together; surely she, 
She too, remembering days and words that were, 
Will turn a little toward us, sighing; but we, 
We are hence, we are gone, as though we had not been there. 
Nay, and though all men seeing had pity on me, 
         She would not see. 

I distinctly remember Jason Robards reciting A Leave-Taking most stirringly, and of course it is in the original O’Neill text. Being the diligent cinéaste that I am, I duly re-watched it in preparation for this piece.  Some 2 ½  soul-crushingly miserable hours later, I realised that the version I was watching was missing this scene. Anyone who remembers this film, I’d be very glad if you could confirm I’m not imagining things. In any case, a great poem and a great film. Katharine Hepburn’s acting ability shifts up a gear around this period. She turns in a haunting performance as Mary – the ‘She’ who is irrevocably lost, and to whom her son bids this mournful farewell.


Ample Make This Bed (E. Dickinson)

Features in: Sophie’s Choice (1982)

Ample make this Bed —
Make this Bed with Awe —
In it wait till Judgment break
Excellent and Fair.

Be its Mattress straight —
Be its Pillow round —
Let no Sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this Ground —

Ample make this bed appears twice, with each recitation embodying a different dimension of the poem. In the first, Nathan reads to Sophie as they lie in bed. The scene is warm and nurturing, bringing to the fore the bed qua marriage bed. In the second, Stingo recites the poem over the bodies of Sophie and Nathan, who are dead by suicide and lying in the same bed as before. The bed becomes a deathbed or, by extension, the burial plot.

Marvin Hamlisch’s beautiful, elegiac theme, which takes its name from the Dickinson poem, plays in both scenes. Quite unmistakably, the key of the piece is raised a semi-tone in the second scene. The effect is a subtle, subconscious feeling of  uplifting, despite the tragic end. Although Nathan and Sophie suffered great hardship throughout their lives,  the suggestion of the poem, underpinned by the logic of the music, is that in their ‘Judgement break’, they were at last able to find peace.


Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven (W. B. Yeats)

Features in: 84 Charing Cross Road (1987)

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

The poems in this list have been used in all sorts of ways: as plot devices, counterpoints to characterisation, thematic lynchpins, and more. My feeling is that this poem is quite simply a reflection of the film’s mood and tone more than anything else. Like 84 Charing Cross Road, The Cloths of Heaven is quiet, gentle, and altogether lovely.

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