Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is named after a poem by William Ernest Henley, who wrote it in 1875 to jiff up his spirits after his leg was amputated. Nelson Mandela (played by Morgan Freeman) quotes the lines, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul” as a source of uplift and inspiration, and it’s just a shame for everyone concerned that the very same poem was chosen as a pre-execution statement by Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber.
Henley is not the only Victorian poet whose work has provided movies with memorable but, to the uninitiated, slightly baffling titles. Even if you have never heard of Ernest Dowson, you’ll be familiar with at least two of the phrases from his work: Gone with the Wind and Days of Wine and Roses. Dipping even further back into literary history, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) is borrowed from Alexander Pope’s poem about Eloise wishing she could forget Abelard. The enduring popularity of Rudyard Kipling’s If-, voted Britain’s Favourite Poem in a 1995 BBC opinion poll, must be at least partly due to its having been adopted, with the dash replaced by an ellipsis, as the title of Lindsay Anderson’s 1968 subversive school fantasy, though one imagines Anderson was being ironic; he reportedly loathed the poem and all it stood for.
I’m wary of poetry in the cinema, the same way I’m wary of poetry in general; I find it faintly embarrassing. I pretend to like it so no-one will think me a Philistine, but in reality the only volume of poetry I ever read from cover to cover was Baudelaire’s Les fleurs du mal, and then only because some of the poems had vampires in them. When I hear poetry in films, I automatically assume the screenwriter is co-opting someone else’s words because they’re too lazy to try and come up with something of their own. Easier for Richard Curtis to have John Hannah deliver W.H. Auden’s Funeral Blues in Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994) than to write his own eulogy to a dead companion.
Meanwhile, characters quoting verse at one another is a sure way of making my toes curl; there’s a particularly excruciating example in the duff thriller Half Moon Street (1986) when Michael Caine says, “Let us go now, you and I,” and Sigourney Weaver (playing an academic who moonlights as a call-girl) replies, “When the evening is spread out against the sky”. Soulmates, you see.
You’d be entitled to ask for your money back if you didn’t hear a bit of declaiming in poet-pics such as Bright Star (2009) or Howl (2010) (and if Allen Ginsberg looked anything like James Franco, who plays him, I’ll eat my Pocket Poets edition, which incidentally I only bought because it featured as a gag in the werewolf movie The Howling). And you expect to hear poetry in a film called Dead Poets Society (1989), which means Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! (written in 1865 after Abraham Lincoln’s assassination) will now forever be associated with standing on desks.
Nor are you surprised to come across it in the work of an inveterate intellectual name-dropper like Woody Allen, whose Another Woman (1988) features a scene, either breathtakingly poignant or cringe-makingly pretentious depending on your point of view, in which Gena Rowlands finds a line in a volume of Rainer Maria Rilke (“You must change your life now”) stained by her dead mother’s teardrops, the emo equivalent of a fluorescent highlighter.
But I’m not totally anti-poem. I like the way Christina Rossetti’s Remember Me keeps cropping up in Kiss Me Deadly (1955), where its context, sandwiched between torture with a pair of pliers and The Manhattan Project, makes it haunting rather than twee. Lines from John Donne’s first Holy Sonnet (“I run to death, and death meets me as fast”) add the finishing touch of suicidal gloom to the downbeat B-movie thriller The Seventh Victim (1943), while Rodney Dangerfield’s heartfelt rendition of Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night is all the more moving for its popping up unexpectedly in the rumbustious comedy Back to School (1986).
Otherwise, I feel safer sticking with John Lillison, England’s greatest one-armed poet, whose Pointy Birds is quoted in The Man With Two Brains (1983): “O pointy birds, O pointy pointy, Anoint my head, Anointy-nointy.”
This piece was first published in the Guardian in January 2010. It also appeared in my self-published ebook Anne Billson on Film 2010. It has been lightly edited.