Gilbey on Film: from bard to verse

What happens when movies take on poetry?

There's blood on the escritoires over at the Poetry Society. It has been in turmoil for some weeks following multiple resignations, and now there is the suspension of public funds by the Arts Council to contend with -- all in the wake of what the Independent described as a "power struggle" between its former director and the editor of Poetry Review.

What, you may ask, has all this got to do with cinema? Well, I was thinking that we might at last have the germ of a decent film about poetry here -- a back-stabbing Social Network-type affair (Hang 'Em Haiku? Stanza and Deliver?) that could make up for decades of incompatibility between these two art forms, poetry and cinema.

It's common for a film to earn the compliment of being called poetic, but when it comes to engaging with poetry itself, the two art forms feel uniquely out of sync with one another. Whenever cinema and poetry meet, the liaison is invariably punctuated by yawning silences where neither party knows exactly what to say or how to say it. The most visionary directors -- such as Jane Campion in Bright Star -- have caught the essence of verse, but committing the medium itself to film is as simple as nailing two eggs together. Dead Poets Society, Tom & Viv, Poetic Justice and significant parts of the recent Howl -- all have failed to render the passion of poetry without lapsing into the prosaic. At least the version of Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" set to music in the 1980 film Fame had youthful sincerity on its side.

Lee Chang-Dong's new film Poetry is an exception: it shows that poetry (and, by extension, art) can form part of a person's very survival. Mija (Yoon Jeong-Hee), a woman in her sixties recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, enrols in a poetry class as a way of holding on to the language that has begun cruelly to desert her. So far, so Hollywood -- sign up Sally Field for the remake.

But where Poetry differs from that formula is in denying the audience an emotional spectacle or catharsis; at the very moment when you might expect poetry as a force to inspire the film's characters to climb upon their desks proclaiming "O Captain! My Captain!", it is reined in, the better to underline Mija's private transformation. Writing poetry changes her (and I will leave viewers of the film to see exactly what form that change takes), but the picture shows how the most momentous internal revolutions often register as no more than a ripple on the surface.

Michael Radford's 1995 Il Postino is not in the same league at all but it does at least argue for the importance of poetry in everyday life. It shows how poetry can be woven into us, and into our lives, whether or not we choose to recognise it; a rose by any other name, and all that jazz. Perhaps that's one of the keys to making a good, unself-conscious film about poetry: to give the words their proper context, to show the life unfolding around them. That's undoubtedly where Bright Star excels. Campion handles John Keats's poems with special informality. The first excerpt to reach our ears -- the opening stanza of Endymion ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever") -- is delivered in a child's halting, sing-song voice, before her older sister snatches the book from her hands and silently completes the reading herself.

As Keats, Ben Whishaw is endearingly nervy, free of the reassuring hindsight with which so much period drama is played. A.O Scott in the New York Times wrote that viewers should "stay until the very last bit of the end credits, not necessarily to read the name of each gaffer and grip, but rather to savour every syllable of Mr. Whishaw's recitation of 'Ode to a Nightingale.'" High praise.

Poetry opens on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Hands across the pages: the stories of the world's most beautiful books

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel allows us to see inside the books most of us will never get the chance to open.

Some books are so old and valuable that most readers will never get to see them ­except when opened at a single spread in a glass display case. As Christopher de Hamel (the custodian of the treasure-house Parker Library at Corpus Christi, Cambridge) observes, even now that many rare books have been digitised, there is no satisfactory substitute for sitting at a desk and turning these ancient pages yourself, “touching hands” with their creators and the long-vanished world in which they lived.

Given that you generally need to be a ­palaeographer of de Hamel’s standing in order to do this, his handsome new book provides the next best thing. He has selected for our joint inspection 12 manuscripts, ranging in date from the late-6th-century Gospels of St Augustine to the early 16th-century Spinola Hours. These books have made very long journeys to their current locations in (mostly) high-security, temperature-controlled and restricted-access libraries and museums, crossing seas and continents, passing through many hands, and sometimes disappearing entirely from view for centuries.

The experience of reading this book is of sitting beside de Hamel as he describes the commissioning, making and subsequent history of these manuscripts and draws our attention to quirky or crucial details we might otherwise have missed. The book is lavishly illustrated but many of the images have had to be reduced from their real dimensions, and readers will find it useful to have a magnifying glass to hand, as de Hamel does when studying the originals.

As part of the immersive experience the author provides, we meet not only the books, but also the libraries and museums in which they are kept and the staff who oversee them. At the Kongelige Bibliotek in Copenhagen, he tells us, ordinary visitors are treated “with a care and patience I could hardly imagine in any other national library”, whereas the employees of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are grim, bossy and humourless, while those at the Bibliothèque nationale de France are “inclined to fob you off with microfilm, ­especially if they suspect that your French is not up to arguing”. Once seated at a desk, de Hamel takes possession of the books, describing their bindings, dimensions and (in footnotes) their collation, in which the pages that make up a manuscript are itemised according to “a formula that looks at first sight as impenetrable as a knitting pattern or a sequence of DNA, but which is in fact quite precise and simple”.

Some of these books were created for personal and portable use, but others are extremely large and heavy. In a delightfully unsupervised room at the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence, de Hamel tries to pick up the Codex Amiatinus (circa 700), the weight of which the archaeologist Rupert Bruce-Mitford likened to that of “a fully grown female Great Dane”. Not to be outdone, de Hamel notes that “a 12-to-13-year-old boy is about the same”, and adds that it would have taken the skins of 515 young cattle to produce the 1,030 pages of parchment needed for this huge Vulgate Bible. It began its life in what is now Tyne and Wear, copied from a Bible brought back to England from Rome in 680 by two monks called Benedict and Ceolfrith. It was in fact one of three copies, two of them commissioned for the twinned abbeys of Wearmouth and Jarrow, and a third to be lugged back to the papal court in Rome, “the first documented export of a work of art from England”.

Unfortunately, Ceolfrith died en route in central France and the book vanished from history for over a millennium, not least because someone altered its dedication page. It appeared, unrecognised, in the inventory of a Tuscan monastery in 1036, but was not identified as Ceolfrith’s lost copy until 1887. Quite how it ended up in the monastery is not known, though de Hamel wonders whether the monks accompanying Ceolfrith paused at Monte Amiata on the onward journey to Rome and then decided to settle there.

The detective work in tracing the history and provenance of these manuscripts is an essential and enthralling element of de Hamel’s book. Another extraordinary survival is that of The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre, found literally underfoot by a French soldier in a railway siding at Berchtesgaden Railway Station in 1945, after Hitler’s Alpine retreat had been overrun by Allied forces. Created for the eponymous French queen in the second quarter of the 14th century, the book passed through several royal hands, including those of Joan of Navarre, the second wife of Henry IV of England. It then spent three centuries at a Franciscan nunnery in Paris, before coming on to the collectors’ market. Bought by Edmond de Rothschild in 1919, it was subsequently stolen by the Nazis and possibly entered Hermann Göring’s personal collection.

The significance of these books is not merely palaeographical, and de Hamel proves equally well versed in medieval genealogy, and religious and social history. He provides enlightening accounts both of the production of the books and of the ways in which they were used: sometimes to teach royal children to read, sometimes as a way for the aristocratic laity to commune with God without the intermediary of church and priest. He describes the physical demands of being a scrivener or illuminator, and a fascinating chapter on the “Hengwrt Chaucer” carefully weighs the evidence identifying the individual who created this c.1400 copy of The Canterbury Tales.

The author challenges the received wisdom, declaring himself unimpressed by the much-vaunted artistry of The Book of Kells: it may contain the earliest painting of the Virgin and Child in European art but “the baby is grotesque and unadorable, with wild red hair like seaweed [and] protruding upturned nose and chin”. He evidently prefers the mid-10th-century Morgan Beatus, which warns of an apocalypse that seemed at the time all too imminent and includes an enchanting Adam and Eve, “brightly pink like newly arrived English ­holidaymakers on Spanish beaches”. As these quotations demonstrate, de Hamel’s book may be a work of formidable scholarship but it is also, thanks to the author’s relaxed and informal style of writing, eminently readable and very entertaining.

Peter Parker is the author of “Housman Country: Into the Heart of England” (Little, Brown)

Meetings With Remarkable Manuscripts by Christopher de Hamel is published by Allen Lane (640pp, £30)

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times