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Poetry in Movies

April 1st, 2014
Jennie · Staff Recommendations

When was the last time you listened to someone reciting a poem? Was it at the movie theatre? Poems have been the means used by filmmakers to add a magical and intoxicating effect in memorable and emotional scenes in movies. April, the National Poetry Month, is the perfect time to share some of your favorite poems with your family and friends and watch a movie that contains poetry.

There are all kinds of movies related to poetry. Some movies are based on epic poems like “Troy”, “The Raven”, “Beowulf”, “Mulan”, and “Braveheart”. Poetry naturally pops up in films about poets such as Shakespeare in “Shakespeare in Love”, T. S. Eliot in “Tom & Viv” and Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in “Sylvia”. Poetry also appears in many movies in dramatic and unexpected ways. Highlighted below are several top-rated movies that quote my favorite poems.

Poetry plays an important role in Oscar-winning film “The Blind Side“, a true story based on Michael Lewis’ book of the same name. The film’s protagonist, Michael, is a homeless African American teenager taken in by a well-to-do white family. He needs to write a final paper to improve his GPA in order to be eligible for an athletic scholarship. He chooses to write about Lord Alfred Tennyson’s well-known poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade“.

Written in 1854 during the Crimean War (quite relevant to the current events), the poem honors the bravery of the cavalry in carrying out orders without questioning their leaders while charging “into the valley of Death”. “Theirs not to make a reply, Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do and die” Michael studies the poem and questions whether one should simply accept adults’ orders and rules. He also considers the difference between raw courage, the kind possessed by the gangsters among whom he grew up, and the courage to do what is honorable, as demonstrated by the cavalry in Tennyson’s poem. The poem reveals the film’s theme of courage and honor, a challenge not only faced by Michael but other characters as well. The eloquent poem on fighting and dying in the battle field truly matches the heart-warming movie on tackling boundaries in the football field.

Bright Star” – An extraordinary film, based on the true story of undying love between John Keats (1795-1821), one of the greatest romantic poets, and his spirited muse Fanny Brawne. Keats’ work and life are entwined in this love story which is played out against the picturesque backdrop of fields of yellow and blue flowers and apple blossoms. “My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains” “Away! Away! for I will fly to thee”, “Was it a vision, or waking dream? Fled is that music: – Do I wake or sleep?” (Ode to a Nightingale). The director tries to match the visual beauty with Keats’ verbal beauty. It is truly mesmerizing.

Dead Poets’ Society” – A very compelling and thought-provoking movie about an unconventional and passionate English professor, played by Robin Williams. Through poetry and literature, the professor helps his students see the world from a different perspective and inspires them to find their own voices. “The powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse” (Whitman’s O Me, O Life) “What will your verse be?” Poems are placed seamlessly in the dialogue. The liberating and soul-nourishing nature of poetry is part of the theme of the movie. Poetry is read and discussed throughout the film. Excerpts from well-known poems like Whitman’s “Oh Captain! My Captain!“, “O Me, O Life” and Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” are delivered at very memorable scenes, such as one in which Williams recites “Oh Captain! My Captain!” while standing on his desk. Borrow Complete Poetry and Collected Prose of Walt Whitman and The Poetry of Robert Frost and share the poems and the inspirational movie with your loved ones.

Four Weddings and a Funeral” – A romantic comedy that takes a hysterical look at people getting -and not getting – married. However, there is a very touching and mournful scene of the funeral. John Hannah expresses his profound sadness to his lover through Auden’s melancholy and very pictorial poem “Funeral Blues”. The poem was first published in 1936 and became famous after being featured in this film. “Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone, Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone” and other poems can be found in W. H. Auden’s book Poems.

Two poems are quoted and well placed in the movie In Her Shoes, adapted from the book of the same name by Jennifer Weiner. The film focuses on the relationship between a grandmother and two sisters (Maggie and Rose) who are very close but have nothing in common besides having the same shoe size.

Dyslexic Maggie is asked by a blind English professor to read Elizabeth Bishop’s poem “One Art” on the art of losing at the turning point of the movie. The poem slowly sinks in to Maggie’s brain and brings about a change in Maggie’s behavior. Prior to this scene, she hasn’t given much thought to her misconducts that resulted in the loss of her job, her values, and her sister’s trust. “It’s evident, the art of losing isn’t hard to master though it may look like disaster”. After doing damage to her relationship with her sister, Maggie surprises her sister near the end of the film. The theme of love is expressed through e. e. Cummings’ highly rhythmic love poem “I Carry Your Heart With Me“, which is recited near the climax of the film in a moving wedding scene and at the end of the movie. The movie is really about the transformation of all three women, the depths of which can be seen through the use of poetry.

In “Skyfall“, the most recent James Bond movie, the last six lines of Alfred Tennyson’s poem “Ulysses” are recited by M (played by Judith Dench) in a very intense scene in which she has to defend her tenure at a public hearing. The film is hugely fun but has a very serious theme reflected in the poem: the place of tradition in the modern world.

“Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

Tradition is constantly threatened by modernity throughout the film. The excerpt of the poem is a perfect fit for the tales of Bond and M, both aged and out of place but with a strong will to fight for their cause in an increasingly dangerous and technological world.

Tennyson (1809-1892), a Victorian poet, is celebrated by both his contemporaries and modern readers. Some of his poems and articles about his life can be found on the website of Poetry Foundation.

“Poetry is a sister art to film”. It appears in countless movies about different themes, times and places in not just English but many other languages. Thanks to works like these timeless poems that tackle issues from courage, love, loss, mortality, aging, and challenges, we can understand movies to new depths.

What are your favorite poems? This is the ideal month to share them with us.

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  1. Tennyson’s “Lady of Shalott” is recited in Anne of Green Gables, and Agatha Christie’s The Mirror Cracked from Side to Side.

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