Movies and poetry are two of my favorite pastimes, and I always love it when they happen to overlap. Great poetry manages to conjure deep emotions, and when a film utilizes such poems, the combination can be quite powerful. I also just like the fact that these films expose regular moviegoers to some classic verse and make it more memorable. Thus, here are my top twelve uses of poetry in movies, with special placing for poems that are actually significant to the plot.
- “In Flanders Fields” by John McCrae, from Mr. Holland’s Opus (1995)
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.”
I remember memorizing this elegiac call-to-arms in my elementary English class, and Mr. Holland’s Opus uses it during a Vietnam War funeral to add an extra punch of emotion. It’s a small scene but from one of my favorite films ever.
- “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night” by Dylan Thomas, from Interstellar (2014)
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”
While Dylan Thomas’s famous villanelle has been used in other films like Butterflies Are Free and Back to School, Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar perfectly plays out its message of resisting death. As the astronauts who are Earth’s last best hope of survival head for a wormhole, Michael Caine quotes part of the poem powerfully.
- “The Panther” by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Awakenings (1990)
“His gaze, from staring through the bars,
Has grown so weary that it can take in nothing more.
For him, it is as though there were a thousand bars –
And behind the thousand bars, no world.”
In trying to reach and understand a hospital full of mysteriously catatonic patients, Dr. Sayer (Robin Williams) follows a clue from Leonard (Robert De Niro) to this poem. He visits a zoo and reads Rilke’s “The Panther,” drawing a tragic comparison between the caged animal and his patients trapped within their own bodies.
- “Nothing Gold Can Stay” by Robert Frost, from The Outsiders (1983)
“Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.”
After Johnny (Ralph Macchio) accidentally kills a rival gang member, he and Ponyboy Curtis (C. Thomas Howell) hide out in an abandoned church. During the days of waiting, they read Gone with the Wind, and in a sunset scene reminiscent of parts of Gone with the Wind, Ponyboy recites Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” a lament for the loss of beauty and innocence. “Stay gold, Ponyboy.”
- “To an Athlete Dying Young” by A. E. Housman, from Out of Africa (1984)
“Now you will not swell the rout
Of lads that wore their honours out,
Runners whom renown outran
And the name died before the man.”
After moving to Africa and growing coffee and going on safari and falling in love with Denys (Robert Redford), Karen Blixen (Meryl Streep) loses what she held most dear and mourns by reading every other stanza of A. E. Housman’s plaintive poem at her lover’s funeral. Sad stuff.
- “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” by William Butler Yeats, from Memphis Belle (1990)
“I know that I shall meet my fate
Somewhere among the clouds above;
Those that I fight I do not hate,
Those that I guard I do not love;”
Too shy to read his own poems to his fellow airmen on the eve of their final bombing mission over Germany, Danny (Eric Stoltz) recites W. B. Yeats’s “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” (again only part of it). The already eloquent poem becomes even more poignant in relation to the young men about to embark into danger.
- “My Native Land” by Sir Walter Scott, from Groundhog Day (1993)
“The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust, from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonour’d, and unsung.”
Forget about Bill Murray’s fake quoting of 19th-century French poetry (and the Italian subtitles in the video); Andie McDowall delivers a great little poetic insult using Scott’s “My Native Land.” Of course, she takes it completely out of context; Scott meant that anyone unpatriotic is a “wretch,” but it applies to Phil too. The scene also stands out because this is another poem I memorized in school.
- The warmongering poems of World War I, from Joyeux Noel (2005)
“To rid the map of every trace
Of Germany and of the Hun.
We must exterminate that race;
We must not leave a single one.”
What a way to begin a movie! For a film about a Christmas truce between German, French, and English troops in World War I, the first scene contrasts the later camaraderie with a taste of the disturbing hatred that nations fostered against their enemies, even in schoolchildren. I don’t know who exactly wrote the hateful words, but they certainly got their message across in all three languages.
- “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” by John Keats, from Bright Star (2009)
“No–yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever–or else swoon to death.”
Spoiler warning for anyone who doesn’t know what happened to John Keats. The tragic romance is one of the most touching genres, and Bright Star is a prime example. I could have gone with Shakespeare in Love since it includes some of Shakespeare sonnets, but I prefer Bright Star for a period romance, just as I prefer the romantic poetry of Keats over Shakespeare’s. Several of Keats’s poems are used here (such as “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”), but the final recitation scene of grief is the most poignant.
- “Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven” by William Butler Yeats, from 84 Charing Cross Road (1987)
“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.”
Yeats strikes again! In this movie for literature lovers, a writer/reader (Anne Bancroft) and a bookstore manager (Anthony Hopkins) become trans-Atlantic pen pals over decades. Forget for a moment Sean Bean’s death with this poem in Equilibrium, because Hopkins’ quoting of these wistful lines is just one of the many charming literary moments of 84 Charing Cross Road, another of my favorite films.
- Take your pick, from Dead Poets Society (1989)
“What good amid these, O me, O life?
Answer: That you are here,
That life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on,
And you may contribute a verse.”
From Tennyson’s “Ulysses” in the cave to Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” to Robert Herrick’s “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time” to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, few films have the variety of poems that Peter Weir’s Dead Poets Society boasts. It likely introduced a generation to “Gather ye rosebuds, while ye may” and Walt Whitman’s “O Captain, My Captain,” though as famous as the latter is, it’s never actually recited in the movie. Still, poetry lovers can’t go wrong when a film has “Poet” in the title!
- “Death, Be Not Proud” by John Donne, from Wit (2001)
“One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more, Death, thou shalt die.”
As much as I love the poems in all these movies, only Wit actually changed my perception of a poem. Emma Thompson in one of her best roles plays a literature professor suffering from ovarian cancer, yet her devotion to metaphysical poetry remains strong. One distinct memory is of her own English professor explaining the spiritual significance of Donne’s “Death, Be Not Proud,” and though I memorized it too in school and still can recite it, I now add the comma so powerfully emphasized in the final line.
Runners-Up (though I’m sure I’ve missed some so feel free to comment on any others):
“And did those feet in ancient time” by William Blake, sung as “Jerusalem” in Chariots of Fire
Films based on Dr. Seuss poems, my favorite being Horton Hears a Who!
I don’t recall any actual poems read, but Yuri is a poet and writer of “The Lara Poems,” in Doctor Zhivago.
“Annabel Lee” by Edgar Allan Poe, from Holes
“We never know how high we are” by Emily Dickinson, from Seabiscuit
“Sonnet 116” by Shakespeare and various other poems, from Sense and Sensibility
“Snow in Madrid” by Joy Davidman, from Shadowlands
“To be or not to be” and other lines by Shakespeare, from Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country
“The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe, in The Raven
Many other examples of poems in movies can be found at this link: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/poetry-movies-partial-list
One last thing: It may not be a movie, but I have fond memories of watching The Waltons, especially the episode “The Air Mail Man,” in which John-Boy reads a poem to his mother for her birthday. She doesn’t completely understand “The Windhover” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (I don’t think I do either), but John-Boy’s interpretation is lovely and illustrates how poetry need not be fully comprehended to be appreciated.