Each week I write something about Cinema’s use of poetry. Taken together, I believe it leads to a deeper understanding of both film and poems. This week I investigate the use of poetry in the 1946 film ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ and it’s use of Andrew Marvell’s poem “To His Coy Mistress” and I will also write about how this film has inspired 2014 Forward Prize winner Sinead Morrissey.

A Matter of Life and death (Powell and Pressburger 1946) is a love story, a war film and a meditation on time and reality.

Poetry is central in two ways, the opening lines and character of Peter. Andrew Marvell’s poem is quoted in the opening scene of A Matter of Life and Death.  World War II Lancaster Bomber pilot, Peter Carter (David Niven), confronted by his death reaches out over the radio to American operator June (Kim Hunter). He quotes poetry to her and shows her It would have been better to be a poet then be a fighter pilot, as he puts it; “than flown through Hitler’s legs.”  It is then he then quotes lines about time’s fleetingness from “To His Coy Mistress” by “Andy Marvell, what a marvel”, he tells her as he is about to die. The poem is persuasive. It’s the use of complex and juxtaposed images of lovers that adds sparkle to the poem. 

“Let us roll all our strength and all/ Our sweetness up into one ball” and the “iron gates of life”, and his “amorous birds of prey”, as well as “Deserts of vast eternity” all go to create a world we might not have seen before. What woman could resist? Marvell was also writing in a restoration England that saw protestant values dominate all aspects of life. The poem is all the more progressive when we consider that talking to a woman about wanting to enjoy pure physical sex, “vegetable love” was not quite the done thing. 

As the film progresses we realize that Peter is a poet who has not reached his potential. War cutting off life, creation and love (which are all the same thing). Time (death) and love are the connecting themes in the poem and the film. What we see in the film is a race against time, the immediacy of love – as June does not have long to decide to love Peter. The long drawn out arguments over life and death, over decisions of who to love – are almost meaningless in the ‘heat of the moment’ and when faced with imminent destruction. The film is interesting also as it was made in the charred remains of the second world war – where Britain is effectively ruined and looks to America for its salvation, as Peter looks to June. The poem’s sexiness masks a deep dread of death, as a waste of flesh. No surprise that the end of the war led to the ‘baby boom’, nature re-creating what was lost, lust as life.

Just as the film is both romance, political and mystical, so wasAndrew Marvell, who wrote in the 1650s during a time of intense turmoil in Britain’s ‘restoration’. There had been a civil war, a backdrop of complexity that links this poem to the film.  The poem is a ‘seize the day’ poem, a plea to get a woman into bed because who knows how long they will live. War and disease will have been everywhere at that time so the urge to live in the flesh bursts out of his words. It is also a seduction, the poet wants to have sex with the woman and hopes his beautifully constructed argument in the form of iambic tetrameters and rhyming couplets will enhance the images he sets up of time being the enemy, with its ‘winged chariot’ hurtling towards them, much as Peter’s aircraft will blow up in flames. There is irony embedded as well. Marvell was tutor to a young women and being considerably older probably knew he couldn’t spend forever wooing her. Marvellhas poetic powers there is no doubt, whether he got her into bed we don’t know, we know he was persuasive because later he successfully managed to stop the King from killing poet, John Milton.

Another element of the film is exploded into being by Forward Prize winning Poet Sinead Morrissey in her poem “A Matter of Life and Death” (from her collection Parallax, Carcanet 2014). You can hear her poems at this link: https://petemcgovern.blogspot.com/2014/04/sinead-morrissey-reading-poems-puzzle.html

Morrissey is watching the film as she goes into labour, she notices the staircase in the film that links the worlds, thinks about the life her child will have over time, and as the pain of her contractions increase she notices that in the film, life is technicolour and that ‘heaven’ is black and white. She expertly links the switches in the film’s perspective to the pain of birth, her breathing, and how close to death she feels at the point of bringing in life; “He hasn’t a parachute”. In heaven,she writes “The dead are invoiced for, like battleships and teapots”. She expertly links the switches within the film’s perspective to the pain of birth, her breathing, “bend and breath”. This switching between realms in the film, in Marvell’s poem and in Morrissey’s poem show that there is a visceral link between the exuberant creation of life and art in overcoming the banal finality of death.

Jessica Mookherjee’s poetry appears in many journals including Agenda, Poetry Wales, The North, Rialto, Under the Radar, Birmingham Literary Review and in various anthologies including the forthcomingBloodaxe’s Staying Human. Her pamphlets are The Swell (TellTale Press 2016) and Joyride (BLER Press 2017). She was highly commended in the 2017 Forward Prize. Her first collection, Flood, was published by Cultured Llama in 2018 and her second, Tigress, by Nine Arches Press in 2019. She is a joined editor of Against the Grain Poetry Press.

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