POETRY IN CINEMA: DON’T FORGET YOU ARE STARDUST

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 it’s Richard Linklater’s 1995 film Before Sunrise and W.H Auden’s As I Walked Out One Evening. 

It’s a film about two young people, Jesse (Hawke) and Celine(Delpy) meeting by chance on a train in Europe and spending one day together before going their separate ways. In those few hours in Vienna they fall in love. They decide on that journey that they will make the most of their time together and that is what the film is really about, time. When I first watched the film I didn’t know that there would be two further films spanning 25 years where the Jesse and Celine would meet again and I would watch them age. 

The use of poetry in the film is interesting, both as a symbol of time and as metaphor of the relationship. There are two poems in this film, the Auden ballad As I walked Out One Evening anda gift from a homeless poet to the lovers called “Milkshake” by Iris Watts Hirideyo. 

The full poem can be found here: As I Walked Out One Evening by W. H. Auden – Poems | poets.org  and here is a link to the scene in the movie: 

The movie’s minimal plot voyeuristically follows two people as they fall in love in one day. Their meet cute is on a train, listening to a middle aged couple arguing. Jesse (Hawke) sets up the movie by saying he wants to make a film of the world happening, ordinary scenes like a guy standing in a queue for the cashpoint, the poetry of everyday life he calls it. That is what Linklater has created. The script written by him and Kim Krizanrecalls a real event in Linklater’s life in 1989 where he spent a day with a girl he never forgot. Jesse persuades Celine (Delpy) to spend the day with him “Think of this as time travel – from then …to what you are really missing out on”. 

Vienna looms like a gigantic grandmother of time in the backdrop, all the conversations, seductions and adventures circle around time, as the lovers know they have a finite number of hours together as light fades from midday, to sunset, to night. 

Pretty much nothing has happened in these two young people’s lives yet and in some way, everything has also already happened. Celine though aware of her beauty, feels like an old lady on her death bed. Jesse, due to issues from his parents’ divorce, feels like a 13-year-old boy pretending to be a man.

At a café a gypsy tells Celine her future, says she will become a powerful woman. Jesse laughs, saying she’ll say anything for money. As the gypsy leaves she says two things that chime withthe theme of the film and poems; “You need to resign yourself to the awkwardness of life” and “Don’t forget you are stardust”.

A homeless poet asks them for a word, offers to write them a poem. The scene with Milkshake can be found here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fG-twYoRswM

https://apieceofcake0.wordpress.com/2013/10/15/milkshake-poem-from-before-sunrise-1995/

The poem is fresh; “limousine eyelash” with the wistful transients sailing past each other. It has a sense of the ‘throw away’ too, its pop art sensibility contrasting with the more crafted traditional Auden ballad. The young lovers decide whether to take the risk to fall in love or just see their union as a moment in time. It is as they get ready to leave each other that we hear the might of the Auden ballad. Jesse holds Celine in his arms as he recites, 

“The years shall run like rabbits,

   For in my arms I hold

The Flower of the Ages,

   And the first love of the world.’

But all the clocks in the city

   Began to whirr and chime:

‘O let not Time deceive you,

   You cannot conquer Time.”

This is one of W.H.Auden’s early poems, written in the 1930’s and here he is not quite at the height of his powers. He writes in rhyming quatrains what starts as a fairly traditional lyrical folk ballad. Yet Auden does an interesting thing in the poem, the narrator of the poem, the love song and the chimes of the bells all become the same thing, time itself. Though the love song says love will last forever, the bells remind the singer that “You can not conquer time”. The poem uses the image of glaciers and deserts merging through time, and as the poem moves the lovers disappear. The land will still continue after the lovers have gone. The tone of the poem is controlled and calm and that echoes the tone of the film. The final shots of the film show all the places the lovers have been in Vienna, now empty and just as in the poem ‘Milkshake” Jesse and Celine are on separate journeys. They have promised to meet again in a years time, and Auden’s poem questions the value of lover’s words. 

“O look, look in the mirror, O look in your distress: Life remains a blessing, Although you cannot bless”

The poem has a number of scenes that are mirrored in the film, a street, a ‘brimming river’, the buskers; ‘beggar’s ruffling banknotes’, the park where they make love; ‘the lily-white boy is a roarer, and Jill goes down on her back’.  

The park where they made love is shown in one of the last scenes, the bottle of wine they stole is still there lying in the grass and an old lady limps past, moving slowly out of shot. How fast life moves for the young.


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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