About three-quarters of the way through the joyride of explosions and witty deliciousness that is Skyfall, it happened: Judi Dench's character M, called before a committee of Parliament to defend the actions of MI6, punctuates her case by quoting a Tennyson poem. I cringed a little.
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Mov'd 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.
Now, I like the closing lines of "Ulysses" a lot, and they certainly fit with one of the movie's central themes: mustering the strength of tired, old warriors. And I get that the lines are probably new to a lot of Bond watchers. But Tennyson's grandeur -- the suddenly elevated language -- struck me as glaringly out-of-place. The quote comes shortly after Bond makes a quip about scotch, and guns down a half-dozen people. I'd argue that the Scotch scene is more appropriately poetic. It's a Bond movie, for God's sake.
Despite being a poet, or, maybe because I'm a poet, when poetry pops up in a movie (discounting Shakespeare flicks and movies about poets), I usually react like Kevin Costner in Bull Durham when Susan Sarandon drops a William Blake quote out of nowhere:
"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom -- William Blake."
"What do you mean, William Blake?"
"I mean William Blake!"
"Who are you?"
So when are poems used appropriately in movies? They tend to work in two cases: when the grandeur of a scene is already elevated, or when a scene brings the grandeur of a poem down to its level. I've collected a few of my favorite examples.
I've always loved the use of Auden's "Funeral Blues" in Four Weddings and a Funeral:
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last for ever: I was wrong.
The scene (hint: it isn't a wedding) is a fitting place for poetry. And having Auden's words spoken by a gay man in memory of his partner is spot on.
In Out of Africa, Robert Redford recites lines from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as he washes Meryl Streep's hair with a couple of curious hippos looking on. It's hard not to like Redford's down to earth delivery. And the movie gets a thumbs-up for quoting Coleridge's classic without mentioning the albatross.
Farewell, farewell! but this I tell
To thee, thou wedding-guest!
He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
Apocalypse Now uses T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" well. Colonel Kurtz intones the poem--which, like the movie, was inspired by Conrad's novel--during an intense scene that takes place in the jungle's heart of darkness:
We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet
Of course, this is all just one poet's opinion. What about you? Feel free to add your own favorite scenes in the comments section below.