Poetry In Motion (Pictures): 19 Films that Feature Poetry

poetryThere’s a very easy way for screenwriters to make characters seem smart, and that’s to have them quote some verse, usually by a heavyweight poet (Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats or Eliot). Sometimes it’s just a way for the screenwriters to wear their educations on their sleeves.


Splendor in the Grass (1961)

Splendor in the Grass, a film in part about the loss of passionate youthful love – takes its title from Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Mortality”:

What though the radiance which was once so bright,
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower

“Good girl” Deanie (Natalie Wood) won’t have sex with her boyfriend Bud (Warren Beatty), a decision which sets in motion all manner of tragedy for just about everyone else in the film.


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)

The title of the memory-wiping romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is from Alexander Pope’s “Eloisa to Abelard”:

How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, by the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d


A Matter of Life and Death (1946), AKA Stairway to Heaven

Both Walter Raleigh and Andrew Marvell are quoted in the opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death.  World War II Lancaster Bomber pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), is something of a philosopher and also a poet, one whose education was “violently interrupted” by the war. Facing what he assumes will be certain death, his final words are over the radio to June (Kim Hunter). He quotes the first stanza of Raleigh’s contemplation of a happy afterlife, “The Passionate Man’s Pilgrimage”, saying he’d rather have written those lines “than flown through Hitler’s legs.”  He then quotes lines about time’s fleetingness from “To His Coy Mistress” by “Andy Marvell, what a marvel”.


Blade Runner (1982)

In Blade Runner, Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) is fond of William Blake’s “America, A Prophecy” (a poem significantly about repression and revolt), but he gets the quote wrong.

Blake actually wrote “Fiery the angels rose, and as they rose deep thunder roll’d/Around their shores: indignant burning with the fires of Orc.” The misquote is deliberate: Roy probably sees himself as a fallen angel booted out of Heaven. Screenwriter David Webb Peoples had originally planned for Roy to quote from Shelley’s “Ozymandias”, which would have been an interesting choice (it’s about hubris and immortality, important themes in the film), but director Ridley Scott said ‘I think you need some Blake here.” Later in the film Tyrell (Joe Turkell)) quotes Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.


Memphis Belle (1990)

In Memphis Belle, Danny “Danny Boy” Daly (Eric Stoltz) passes off Yeats’ famous “An Irish Airman Foresees His Death” as his own work.


A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001)

Yeats shows up again in A.I. Artificial Intelligence, a film about a robot who wishes to be a real boy (like Pinocchio). Dr. Know (voiced by Robin Williams) quotes from “The Stolen Child” (a clever reference in a film that has many of the dark elements of a fairy tale).


Dangerous Minds (1995)

Both Dylans – Dylan Thomas and Bob Dylan – feature in Dangerous Minds. Thomas’ defiance against death “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night” is featured. If my English teacher looked like Michelle Pfeiffer, I’d have paid a lot more attention in school.


Dead Poets Society (1989)

Walt Whitman’s “O Me! O Life!” is one of many poems mentioned by high school English teacher, John “O Captain! My Captain!” Keating (Robin Williams), in Dead Poets Society, as he tries to get the boys of Welton Academy to embrace the spirit of poetry. Even his name, John Keating, is a poetic reference to Keats.


G. I. Jane (1997)

In G.I. Jane, tough but fair Master Chief John James Urgayle (Viggo Mortensen) is fond of D.H. Lawrence. And you thought all Navy SEALS were lunkheads.


Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)

All sorts of Shakespeare is quoted by obviously frustrated thespian, General Chang (Christopher Plummer), in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (the title is a reference to Hamlet).


Kiss Me Deadly (1955)

Christina Rosetti’s “Remember” is quoted in Kiss Me Deadly

It’s hard to imagine tough private eye Mike Hammer even owning a book, let alone reading poetry.


Four Weddings and a Funeral (1994)

A lot of filmgoers went looking for poetry by “splendid bugger”, W.H. Auden, after “Funeral Blues” was recited by Matthew (John Hannah) in Four Weddings and a Funeral.


Apocalypse Now (1979)

If there’s one movie that grabbed audiences by the scruff of the neck and rubbed their faces in literature, it’s the druggy Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now. The plot was modelled on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Kurtz (Marlon Brando) has gone rogue, retreated up the river into Cambodia and is going a little mad. The books on his shelf include Frazer’s The Golden Bough, a big influence on T.S. Eliot (as was Heart of Darkness), and Kurtz recites Eliot’s “The Hollow Man”. A crazed photojournalist (Dennis Hopper) thinks Kurtz is a genius, “a warrior poet”, but even he knows that “This is the way the world ends/Not with a bang but a whimper.”


HOWL (2010)

In HOWL Beat poet Allen Ginsburg (James Franco) recites the famous “I’m With You in Rockland” from “HOWL” while various 1950s hipster-types shout encouragement.


The Dead (1987)

John Huston’s The Dead is faithful to James Joyce’s short story, except in the character of Mr Grace (Sean McClory), who does not appear in the story. He brings a turn of the century dinner party in Dublin to a halt when he recites Lady Gregory’s translation of the Middle-Irish poem, “Donal Og” (Mr Grace says it’s called “Broken Vows”). The poem is a lament over a broken heart, and is a fitting addition to Joyce’s story, considering how the story (and film) ends with Gretta Conroy (Anjelica Huston) crying herself to sleep as she recalls a boy who loved her deeply and died for it.


Dante’s Inferno (1935)

Dante’s The Divine Comedy is featured in many films, explicitly so in a fantasy sequence in Dantes Inferno.


Hannibal (2001)

In Hannibal, Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) listens to ‘la vita nuova’ from “Vide Cor Meum” (based on Dante’s La Vita Nuova). It’s easy to see why Lecter is fond of Dante’s poem. When Dante was a child, he was in love with a little girl. He only saw her in passing but was soon obsessed with her. He saw her again as an adult and “thinking of her, sweet sleep overcame” him. Then he saw the vision of Love holding a woman (Beatrice) who is wrapped in a veil. Love says, “I am your master.” Lecter has a similar obsession with FBI Agent Clarice Starling.


poetrySe7en (1995)

Milton’s “Paradise Lost” is quoted by Somerset (Morgan Freeman) in Se7en, a film replete with Christian notions of sin and redemption.



poetryThe Amazing Spider-man (2012)

In The Amazing Spiderman Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) quotes two lines of “The Silkworm” by Renaissance genius Michelangelo Buonarroti – a poem about metamorphosis and death – as he accepts he is turning into The Lizard.


About the Author

Niall McArdle, County-Level Playboy and sometime Warrior Poet, is an Irish writer. Born and raised in Dublin, he is currently at large in Canada. His debut novel, Clay Bodies, will be published this year. When he’s not whining about the arts at silence, cunning, exile … maple syrup, he spends his time collecting rejection letters from The New Yorker. He is still waiting for Uma Thurman to return his calls.


10 thoughts on “Poetry In Motion (Pictures): 19 Films that Feature Poetry

  1. I have a fondness for Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory when he’s in the boat going through the psychedelic tunnel and recites Keats’s “Endymion: A Poetic Romance”. I bet Wonka cited more famous lines from poets than in any other film.

  2. Great post! I love John Hannah’s reading of “Funeral Blues,” too, and often use it in class when I teach Auden with my British literature students. One of my favorite instances of poetry in film is in Richard III (dir. Richard Loncraine) – the opening song is an apt pairing of Marlowe’s “Passionate Shepherd to His Love” and Raleigh’s “Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd.” : http://youtu.be/x2l-zjYnSnA (the sung lyrics start around 2:10)

  3. Great theme Niall, and I have actually seen most of them for a change.
    Any inclusion of ‘Blade Runner’ in anything always gets an immediate thumbs-up from me.
    As for ‘A Matter of Life and Death’, it is on TV weekly here, so I have seen it a lot lately.
    Best wishes, Pete.

  4. There’s another film which featured poetry. The movie Bright Star is firstly named for a sonnet John Keats wrote. The movie itself is about Keats and the Bright Star sonnet is quoted at the end x

  5. I love the fact that you listed A Matter of Life and Death here, Niall–that’s one of my all time favorite films. There’s poetry at the end of it, too–Sir Walter Scott’s musings on love, as quoted in mellifluous tones by Abraham Sofaer: “Love is heaven, and heaven is love.” Glorious.

  6. This brings back a lot of memories, Niall. John Hannah’s performance of Auden is one of the best I’ve ever seen. Another of my favorites is Sarah Polley’s reading of The Pied Piper in Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. It’s a little bit on the nose, but it’s awfully effective.

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