The Poetry of '1917'
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Anyone who has experienced the World War I epic 1917 was able to travel along the long and tiring path taken by its heroes. Yet it is hard not to notice the sparse but effective placement of verse and song that helped set the scene.
For those who may have recognized a familiar refrain or two, here's a (hopefully) spoiler-free look at the poetry and songs featured in the film.
"The Winners" by Rudyard Kipling
Towards the beginning of the film, when General Erinmore is asked by the pair of lance corporals he is sending on a mission if they need to bring anyone else, he replies: "Down to Gehenna or up to the Throne, He travels the fastest who travels alone."
This is from the first verse of Rudyard Kipling's poem "The Winners," from The Story of the Gadsbys, which appropriately follows the life of a career military man. Those who have seen 1917 should appreciate the hint of prophecy in Erinmore's choosing of this poem. Here's another verse from the same poem that fits the mood of the movie:
"Wherefore the more ye be helpen-en and stayed,
Stayed by a friend in the hour of toil,
Sing the heretical song I have made--
His be the labour and yours be the spoil.
Win by his aid and the aid disown--
He travels the fastest who travels alone!"
"The Jumblies" by Edward Lear
Later in the movie, we hear Lance Corporal Schofield comforting a baby with a verse from this Edward Lear poem. Lear was an exceptionally talented poet, artist, and musician from the 1800s who was best known for his catchy nonsensical verses, such as:
They went to sea in a Sieve, they did, In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
The poem Schofield chose to recite is still one that is made into illustrated children's books today. Most people might know Lear for his famous verse "The Owl and The Pussycat," but there's something about the futile and unlikely voyage taken in "The Jumblies" that just fits the moment.
Here's an award-winning animated version of the tale by Robert Duncan:
"I Am Poor Wayfaring Stranger"
At one point in the movie, we hear a soldier singing this classic American folk gospel song to a group of other soldiers who are listening intently. This gospel standard has had several variances and versions, but it remains a popular wartime hymn. The soldier singing in the movie, and in the soundtrack, is an actor named Jos Slovick, but one of most haunting covers of this piece was released in 2000 by Johnny Cash for his American III: Solitary Man album:
As 1917 was able to focus on the human element of the desperation and devastation of World War I through a soldier's journey, these chosen moments of poetry and praise helped make the story all the more tragic...and beautiful.