One of the joys of reading poetry is coming upon a familiar line or phrase that you never realized had a poetic source. Maybe it’s the title of a novel or film, or perhaps something you’ve been saying or hearing all your life without considering where it came from. I remember well the smile of discovery that came over my face when I first read an ode about Eton College by Thomas Gray (1716-1771). This is the final stanza.
To each his suff’rings: all are men,
Condemn’d alike to groan,
The tender for another’s pain;
Th’ unfeeling for his own.
Yet ah! why should they know their fate?
Since sorrow never comes too late,
And happiness too swiftly flies.
Thought would destroy their paradise.
No more; where ignorance is bliss,
‘Tis folly to be wise.
Ignorance is bliss. So that’s where it’s from!
It is generally thought that the two most bountiful sources for poetic quotes in the English language are the King James version of the Bible and the works of Shakespeare. My candidate for third place is the renowned eighteenth century poet, Alexander Pope (1688-1744). He wrote most frequently in couplets, and here are some drawn at random from his works:
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be, blest.
A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.
True Wit is Nature to advantaged dressed,
What oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed;
Nay, fly to Altars; there they’ll talk you dead:
For Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread.
Good nature and good sense must ever join;
To err is human, to forgive divine.
* * * * * * * *
Over the years, poetry has provided titles for a number of popular novels and films, especially in the 1930’s and ‘40’s when classic poetry seemed to play a larger role in literary life. Here are three examples.
F. Scott Fitzgerald published “Tender is the Night” in 1934 and thought it his best novel. He drew his title from “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats (1795-1821). Here is the fourth stanza:
Away! away! for I will fly to thee,
Not charioted by Bacchus and his pards,
But on the viewless wings of Poesy,
Though the dull brain perplexes and retards:
Already with thee! tender is the night,
And haply the Queen-Moon is on her throne,
Cluster’d around by all her starry Fays;
But here there is no light,
Save what from heaven is with the breezes blown
Through verdurous glooms and winding mossy ways.
Ernest Hemingway’s novel of the Spanish Civil war, “For Whom the Bell Tolls” was published in 1940 and became a film in 1943 starring Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman. For his title, Hemingway turned to the English metaphysical poet, John Donne (1572-1631) and his “Devotions XVII.” Donne composed this as a prose piece, but when I heard a reading by Orson Welles, I realized that it was poetry in every sense.
No man is an island, entire of itself;
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main;
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
As well as if a promontory were,
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;
Any man’s death diminishes me,
Because I am involved in mankind;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
Incidentally, Hemingway identified the cliff-clinging town of Ronda as the Spanish village Pilar speaks of so movingly in his novel. It was one of Hemingway’s favorite destinations. And that’s where Orson Welles is buried. Small world.
One more example, and a curious one, of a poem becoming a title. John Steinbeck’s novella, “Of Mice and Men,” published in 1937, was originally to be called “Something That Happened”. When Steinbeck read the Scots poem, “To a Mouse” by Robert Burns, he replaced an ordinary title with a memorable one. Here’s an excerpt:
But Mousie, thou art no thy-lane, (not alone)
In proving foresight may be vain:
The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men
Gang aft agley, (Go oft awry)
An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
For promis’d joy!
Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!
But now that we’ve connected some poems and titles, let’s take a lesser-known English poet and see if you can find some items buried within his verse.
Ernest Dowson (1867-1900), whose poems were set to music by Frederick Delius, was known as a Decadent Poet, characterized by his observation that “Absinthe makes the tart grow fonder.” He is also the source of several famous titles, three of which I would gently challenge you to discover.
In the video link below Norman Snow presents Dowson’s poem about love-sickness and his “old passion” for a woman named Cynara. Lines from this poem titled one of America’s most famous novels and gave rise to a Broadway song by Cole Porter.
Then, as an encore, Jill Tanner offers us a Dowson poem that inspired an Academy Award-winning song by Henry Mancini and Johnny Mercer. Over to you!
Click on this link for the Ernest Dowson Video