Sunday, August 25, 2013

Sunday Poetry - Walt Whitman

One of my favourite movies is Now, Voyager with Bette Davis, Paul Henreid & the wonderful Gladys Cooper & Claude Rains, two of my favourite actors. It's the story of Charlotte Vale, a repressed dowdy spinster, living in Boston under the thumb of her formidable mother (played by Gladys Cooper). Does anyone else think that Bette Davis looks remarkably like Charlotte Brontë in the early scenes of the movie? After suffering a nervous breakdown, Charlotte is placed under the care of compassionate psychiatrist, Dr Jaquith (Claude Rains) who restores her sense of self or at least, helps her on the road to restoring it herself. Charlotte takes a cruise & meets Jerry Durrance, a handsome architect trapped in an unhappy marriage. They fall in love but agree to part at the end of the cruise. If you don't know what happens next, you'll have to watch the movie or read the book by Olive Higgins Prouty. I read it years ago & really want to read it again.

Walt Whitman comes into all this through a quotation that Dr Jaquith writes down for Charlotte during her therapy. He sends her back into the world armed with these words of wisdom from Whitman's Leaves of Grass.

The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted,   
Now, Voyager, sail thou forth, to seek and find.

I read quite a bit of Whitman when I was a student. I especially enjoyed Drum Taps, his poems of the American Civil War, & When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd, his lovely elegy for Abraham Lincoln. Lilacs is a long poem but here are just the first few stanzas,


When lilacs last in the door-yard bloom’d,   
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,   
I mourn’d—and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.   
O ever-returning spring! trinity sure to me you bring;   
Lilac blooming perennial, and drooping star in the west,            
And thought of him I love.   

O powerful, western, fallen star!   
O shades of night! O moody, tearful night!   
O great star disappear’d! O the black murk that hides the star!   
O cruel hands that hold me powerless! O helpless soul of me!     
O harsh surrounding cloud, that will not free my soul!   

In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings,   
Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,   
With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love,   
With every leaf a miracle......and from this bush in the door-yard,     
With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,   
A sprig, with its flower, I break.   

In the swamp, in secluded recesses,   
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.   
Solitary, the thrush,     
The hermit, withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,   
Sings by himself a song.   
Song of the bleeding throat!   
Death’s outlet song of life—(for well, dear brother, I know   
If thou wast not gifted to sing, thou would’st surely die.)


  1. Another favourite film! I love Whitman - I find his rhythms very calming - they force me to slow down and appreciate the words.

    1. I just need to find time to watch all these favourite movies again!

  2. I too love Whitman -- thanks for this lovely extract. I don't think I've ever seen Now Voyager but it sounds just up my street -- will be seeking it out soon.

    1. Harriet, if you enjoy a good 1940s melodrama, you'll love NV.

  3. Bette Davis was so much fun to watch. No doubt I have seen all her films several times and Walt Whitman has always been my top poet. A great combination here.

    1. Yes, she was a great actor. Even more so when you know something of her life & realise that she wasn't a particularly nice person. I do love her noble roles best - NV, Old Acquaintance, Watch on the Rhine.