Film Full Circle

AudenVanVechten1939 W. H. Auden

DDL Lincoln Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln

JVJ Hugh Hugh Jackman as Jean Val Jean

jessica-chastain-zero-dark-thirty-image Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

250px-Cecil_Day-Lewis Cecil Day Lewis

Every once in a while I have a severe “Geeks R Me” attack and films this year have caused a major one as poetry, movies, current events, and coincidence have collided with a vengeance. It is almost impossible to look at the tangled web of relationships and figure out which string to unravel to straighten out which lines lead where.

Let’s start with the writers: W. H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis (without the hyphen as he would tell you himself), Mark Twain, and Victor Hugo.  Then there are the actors: Daniel Day-Lewis (with the hyphen son of without the hyphen), Jessica Chastain, and Hugh Jackman.  Add in the movies: Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty, and Les Miserables, and finally toss in the wars and current events: Trojan, Napoleonic, U.S. Civil War, Spanish American, World War II, September 11 and Afghanistan.

At this point the brain explodes, I scream Arghhhhhhhhh, and look for a nice quiet, darkened padded cell.  Still, you have to start somewhere.

Following 9/11 a poem by W. H. Auden written after the invasion by Hitler into Poland started making the rounds at lightning speed. One response to this was this Slate article: Auden on Ben Ladin.  That ties W. H. Auden, World War II, and 9/11 together while leading to the eventual raid on the Ben Ladin compound and the movie about it:  Zero Dark Thirty and it’s lead actress Jessica Chastain.  That takes care of one thread.

September 1, 1939

by W. H. Auden

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can
Unearth the whole offence
From Luther until now
That has driven a culture mad,
Find what occurred at Linz,
What huge imago made
A psychopathic god:
I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew
All that a speech can say
About Democracy,
And what dictators do,
The elderly rubbish they talk
To an apathetic grave;
Analysed all in his book,
The enlightenment driven away,
The habit-forming pain,
Mismanagement and grief:
We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse:
But who can live for long
In an euphoric dream;
Out of the mirror they stare,
Imperialism’s face
And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar
Cling to their average day:
The lights must never go out,
The music must always play,
All the conventions conspire
To make this fort assume
The furniture of home;
Lest we should see where we are,
Lost in a haunted wood,
Children afraid of the night
Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash
Important Persons shout
Is not so crude as our wish:
What mad Nijinsky wrote
About Diaghilev
Is true of the normal heart;
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark
Into the ethical life
The dense commuters come,
Repeating their morning vow;
“I will be true to the wife,
I’ll concentrate more on my work,”
And helpless governors wake
To resume their compulsory game:
Who can release them now,
Who can reach the deaf,
Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Now how is this related to Daniel Day Lewis and Lincoln?  Daniel’s father Cecil was poet laureate of the United Kingdom.  He was both an excellent poet and novelist (see Wiki above for a start on bio).  As such he was a friend and associate of the greatest writers of his time among them W. H. Auden.  Following his death his son, Daniel Day-Lewis, contributed his papers to Oxford university.  Among them was the correspondence with Auden many on the subject of WW II.

Published in 1943 in Word Over All, felt by some to be Day-Lewis’s best collection, this brief poem reflects his mixed feelings about the Second World War, a conflict he had hoped would never happen. It continues to echo down the ages in subsequent conflicts.

Where Are the War Poets?

They who in folly or mere greed
Enslaved religion, markets, laws,
Borrow our language now and bid
Us to speak up in freedom’s cause.
It is the logic of our times,
No subject for immortal verse –
That we who lived by honest dreams
Defend the bad against the worse.

That argument over the futility of war leads both to my reaction to 9/11 which despite its tragedy I thought was no excuse for war and as the flags started waving in jingoistic abandon made me think of Mark Twain’s “War Prayer”.  Two movies this year argue both the necessity and futility of war. Would slavery have ended without action by Lincoln? Would democracy have found its way into France without the student rebellion following the reign of Napoleon?  Overall, can the nobility of one human being (Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and Hugh Jackman as Jean Val Jean) make up for the slaughter of others? Back full circle: See Auden’s poem about futility and ugliness of war in Shield of Achilles In part:

A ragged urchin, aimless and alone,
Loitered about that vacancy; a bird
Flew up to safety from his well-aimed stone:
That girls are raped, that two boys knife a third,
Were axioms to him, who’d never heard
Of any world where promises were kept,
Or one could weep because another wept.

So going into this Oscar season, I won’t be happy unless three movies get nominated for everything and then take home the gold man across all of the categories: Les Miserables, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty. Everything else is less than Zero.

So looking forward to the Eddie Redmayne version of this song which is probably the ultimate in survivor guilt with echoes of PTSD (Can you say “The Master” in film), but Michael Ball from the stage was magnificent:

Brain still not happy but at least I blurted out a fair bit of tangled thread of care, but that could lead to Shakespeare …. Arghhhhhhh!


About Jamie

Retired Writer Editor - Loves Books, Musical Theater, politics for a good argument, genealogy, Scotland and owls
This entry was posted in History, Movies, Poetry and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Film Full Circle

  1. Travis says:

    Wow. This is deep for a Sunday morning. Excellent essay.


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