Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Poetry on TV and in Movies

This is a companion to my posting on music on TV and in movies. That subject naturally led to the thought of what tv shows or movies featured poems. Sometimes the best words in the best order to create the strongest effect have already been written, and are in a poem. Since TV and film writers are in love with words (or they would not be writers), they may take the opportunity to feature poems they love. I have noticed this a number of times over the years, and remember some of them fondly. For no particular reason, I will put them in chronological order.

What I won't include (with one exception) are films that have just one line of a poem, even if this happens often. (For example, Christopher Plummer's character in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, General Chang, loves to quote Shakespeare. Nor will I include ones that are prefaced with a few lines from a poem (such as O Brother, Where art Thou? which starts with the Odyssey), nor films that have a line from a poem as their titles (such as No Country for Old Men or I've Heard the Mermaids Singing or, for that matter, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country).

I was of two minds about citing The Longest Day, although it quotes part of Paul Verlain's "Chanson d'automne" as a signal that D-Day is coming:

Les sanglots longs         The long sobs
Des violons
Of the violins
De l’automne
Of Autumn
Blessent mon cœur
Wound my heart
D’une langueur
With a monotonous

The poetic lines are simply a code here, not a dramatic reading, so they do not exactly fit with my subject.

So let us begin with The Waltons, a popular series featuring a large rural family during the Depression. In one episode in the second season (1973), "The Air Mail Man," the mother is depressed on her birthday, wondering who she is outside of her roles as wife and mother. Life seems too ordinary. Her eldest son, John-Boy, recites a poem to her as a birthday gift. It is "The Windhover" by Gerard Manley Hopkins. She says that she does not understand all of it, but that it is beautiful, "like music." John-Boy tells her that it means that the most ordinary of things can be the most beautiful. I've placed a clip of this scene here. (If the playback is jerky, right-click the link and save the file to your hard drive and play it from there).

The 1986 film, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home is about an effort to save humpback whales, and thus humanity, from extinction. (This makes more sense in the context of the movie). The awesome sight of the whales inspires Captain Kirk to recite a line by D.H. Lawrence. The woman's response--"Whales Weep Not!"--is not the next line of the poem, but the title.

Beauty and the Beast (1987-90), if I remember correctly, often featured Shakespeare's sonnets, such as this one.

In 1990, the film Awakenings featured "The Panther," a poem by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The panther of the poem is physically trapped in a cage so his spirit, too, is trapped and dying. A similarity is suggested between the panther and a catatonic patient who is one of the movie's main characters.

You can compare that translation of "The Panther" to mine.

Nineteen ninety-four brought the romantic comedy Four Weddings and a Funeral. As the title implies, the film is four-fifths comedy and one fifth tragedy. As part of his eulogy for Gareth, a much loved and larger than life gay man, his partner recites W.H. Auden's poem "Funeral Blues." The actor who recites it, John Hannah, is brilliant and moving in this recital.

I was never much of a watcher of Babylon 5, a popular space opera that ran for five seasons starting in 1994. The series' producer, J. Michael Straczynski, also wrote the bulk of the episodes. He is, I am sure, a fan of Tennyson's poem "Ulysses," because it features in two episodes. Here is one, from the fifth season episode "The Long Night."

The title of the 2009 film "Invictus" refers to a poem by William Ernest Henley. The poem expresses one of the movie's main themes. Its recitation is also the only point in the movie when Morgan Freeman does not try to reproduce Nelson Mandela's accent.

By the way, has a longer list up of movies featuring poems here and here. Many of them are films I have not seen, or in which I do not remember the poems. (Bladerunner? Really?) I will end, however, with a movie about poetry, The Dead Poets' Society. Appropriately, it uses a poem to explain why we read and write poetry.


  1. Enjoyable post, again. Thank you Gareth.

    1. Glad you think so. It's nice to think that there is someone on the other side of this internet thing. :-)