Staff Journal

Poetry in Motion

Poetry in MotionOver lunch a group of us started discussing great scenes from films involving poems. So seeing that it is Friday and we have a burgeoning film list (a plug never hurt anyone), we thought we’d share with you some of our favourites. Of course, we’re bound to have omitted your favourite – that’s the nature of these things – but maybe we can include them in an epilogue, or another stanza. Let’s make this poem epic!

Sense and Sensibility (1995)

‘Oh, you are the loveliest girls that ever I set eyes on. Can you not get them married, Mrs. Dashwood?’

We’ve all been abandoned by some dastardly blackguard whose promises of marriage and eternal happiness fall as flat as a flan in a cupboard.  What better way to exorcise those unrequited passions than to stand around in the rain weeping, reciting Shakespeare and gazing longingly at your lost love’s ancestral manor? Ang Lee’s sentimental re-envisioning of Austen’s Sense & Sensibility has Marianne Dashwood as the central heroine (in the book, it’s the sensible Elinor responsible young women should aspire to be) she is – as Colonel Brandon lovingly put it – ‘wholly unspoilt’. Impulsive, passionate and recklessly romantic, Marianne’s ill-fated relationship with the callous (and ‘wholly immoral’) Willoughby is the stuff of a teenage girl’s dreams – she almost dies of some unnamed infection while eligible beaux gallop across the countryside, capes billowing, to be by her side. This moment in the film marks the dramatic climax of Marianne’s story – the sheer hopelessness experienced at losing one’s first love. Elinor’s story – the stuff of repression, resignation and acceptance – is really rather dull by comparison. I’ll have sensibility over sense any day. LT

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

‘I read a poem of you, and thought of his last week’

Romantic comedies and poetry are a great combination in film. In possibly my favourite Woody Allen movie, before the schmaltz tourism and after the hit-and-miss of his earlier comedy sketch stuff, Michael Caine perfects the ‘accidental bump-in’ with the woman he has fallen for (his wife’s sister), by waiting for her to finish work and sprinting around the block to cross her path. The idea of Michael Caine movingly and credibly speaking through a poem of e.e. cummings is bizarre, but the book-shop they go to browse in, and in which he ‘accidentally’ finds the poem, along with Caine’s Hugh Grant-esque British nervousness is completely perfect. His desperation as she leaves – ‘remember, pg. 112!’ – is telling and touchingly schoolboyish; it’s all so hopelessly romantic that it really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Barbara Hershey and the bluesy score are note-perfect, I wish I could say the same about Michael Caine’s coat. In the end, the final line of the poem – ‘nobody, not even the rain, has such small hands’ – is so powerful it steals the scene. TH

Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

‘Perhaps you will forgive me if I turn from my own feelings to the words of another splendid old bugger’

Auden wasn’t the greatest poet of the early twentieth century, but he was the one who most epitomised what it meant to feel English in the thirties – his ‘low, dishonest decade’. Auden had American roots, as did T.S. Eliot and Churchill – and like these men, he wrote about a peculiar Englishness which was a part of his artistic being, perhaps because he had an outsiders need to belong. This scene is the lynchpin of Four Weddings and a Funeral, it stops the film careering off into Hollywood silly, and Auden’s dogs, bones and traffic policeman give it a melancholy British flavour which matches the weather and the glorious Scottish burr of actor John Hannah. It’s moving, and the last shot of the factory by the church hints at a historical significance you can feel in the poems demand to ‘stop all the clocks’. TH

Willa Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

‘Snozzberry? Whoever heard of a snozzberry?’

If Willa Wonka has taught us anything, which he has, it is the importance of dreams and strangely named fruits. To rally the US ice-hockey team in the final of the 1980 Winter Olympics final against the Russians, team-coach Herb Brooks channelled the former, ‘You know, Willy Wonka said it best: ‘we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams’.’ And so it goes, the first lines from Arthur O’Shaughnessy’s Ode, taken from his book Music and Moonlight (1874), have become more famous than the poet himself. Although Mel Stuart’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic was disowned by the author – the belching scene and the casting of Gene Wilder over Spike Milligan proved too much for him, resulting in the screenplay being re-written, the title changed and the rights to adapt Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator refused – it is still the best-known and best-loved Dahl adaptation (Nicholas Roeg’s The Withces comes close), and the only one to have spawned an Aphex Twin number. Despite never tasting a snozzberry, I imagine it’s a bit like a snozzcumber, except less bitter. TA

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990)

The capacity that people have to love… Where does it go?

Forget Anthony Minghella’s oft lauded The English Patient:  this, to my mind, is his masterpiece. A normal-looking thirtysomething woman loses her lover and he comes back as a ghost to comfort her. So far, so boring (and vaguely reminiscent of the ridiculous Ghost). But this beautifully peeled-back exploration of human grief and the sheer vulnerability of romantic love is utterly devastating. It’s important that Jamie (Alan Rickman) passes away unexpectedly of an everyday cold – an undramatic and utterly pointless death. The futility, the incredible smallness of his quietus – ‘if suddenly you do not exist’ (Pablo Neruda) – is powerfully juxtaposed with the gaping void left in the days and nights of the living. Grief, as Nina (Juliet Stevenson) realises, is most profoundly experienced in the quiet, apparently forgettable moments of daily life – arguments over home furnishings (‘I knew you hated that rug’), word games & songs hummed under a lover’s breath. In recognising the depth dimension to everyday experiences, this film is an example of romantic realism (well, with a few ghosts thrown in) at its glorious best. This scene marks the last time Jamie’s ghost will visit Nina and his appeal that she ‘go on living’ (Pablo Neruda) forms the final, painful resolution to their story. To paraphrase Jamie in an earlier scene:  I truly, madly, deeply, passionately…love this film. LT

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2 thoughts on “Poetry in Motion

  1. Nice to see Arthur O’Shaughnessy popping up in ‘Willy Wonka’ – I’d forgotten that bit of the film entirely. O’Shaughnessy was a friend of the Pre-Raphaelites and worked at the British Museum. He’s under-rated if you ask me, but it’s always been that way. One Victorian critic called him ‘a second-hand Mr. Swinburne’ & Dante Gabriel Rossetti wrote the following limerick about him:
    “There’s the Irishman Arthur O’Shaughnessy / On the chessboard of poets a pawn is he: / Though a bishop or king / Would be rather the thing / To the fancy of Arthur O’Shaughnessy”

  2. Wonderfully imaginative idea and beautiful writing. Gladys and I had been discussing sonnet 116 following some lines of it being used on the sheet at a friends memorial service! The reference to Arthur O’Shaughnessy reminded me that artist, poet, songwriter and entertainer Percy French who I major on did a parody of O’Shaughnessy’s ‘We are the music makers’ so I have gained further insights there. I do like the romantic realism concept too.

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