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David Tennant reads Shakespeare
David Tennant reads Shakespeare
David Tennant reads Shakespeare

Today is National Poetry Day (October 2) in the UK, and the Brits have always done pretty well at providing the world with poems and people who are good at reading poems, here are 10 poetic moments, provided by some of our favorite actors and actresses.

Starting with Benedict Cumberbatch reading “Ode to a Nightingale” by John Keats:

And, getting our Anglophenia big two out of the way early, here’s Tom Hiddleston reading W.H. Auden’s “As I Walked Out One Evening,” which uses the folk ballad tradition to draw comparisons between the streets of a city and the fields of the country, with the city clock reminding one and all that natures cycles of birth and death are never too far away:

While we’re out for a stroll, here’s Jeremy Irons reading “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth. The poem came from a walk Wordsworth took with his sister Dorothy along Glencoyne Bay in Ullswater in April 1802. Dorothy noted the bank of daffodils they had seen in her journal, and it was this description, plus the memory of the day, that Wordsworth drew upon to write the poem:

Ralph Fiennes reads Rudyard Kipling’s grief-ridden “My Boy Jack,” a maritime poem of loss from the perspective of a grieving father, which was written after Kipling’s own son Jack went missing during the Battle of Loos, in World War I. The title of the poem was later used for a David Haig dramatization of Kipling’s reaction to this shattering event. Daniel Radcliffe played Jack in the TV adaptation:

Which leads us neatly, into the First World War poets, such as Wilfred Owen. His “Dulce et Decorum Est” is read here by Christopher Eccleston. The title of the poem is taken from a verse by the Roman poet Horace. Translated, it is the first part of an unfinished sentence, “it is sweet and honorable…” to be followed by “to die for one’s country” or “to die for the fatherland,.” The reference is not without some bitter irony:

Owen was greatly influenced by Siegfried Sassoon, as a poet and a fellow soldier. They met in the war hospital Craiglockhart after Sassoon had refused to return to the front line (as dramatized in the film Regeneration). Already famous as a poet, Sassoon offered Owen his support as a burgeoning talent and even made notes and suggestions, to improve his poems. Here’s Helen Mirren reading “Attack,” Sassoon’s horrified description of front-line soldiering:

Jumping forward a bit, here’s Noel Clarke reading Keith Douglas‘ World War II poem “How To Kill.” Taking a less sentimental view of conflict than the WWI War Poets, Douglas wanted to get across the truth of his wartime experiences, claiming to care little about his responsibilities as a poet. He died in the D-Day landings, in 1944:

For something a little more romantic, how about David Tennant reading Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 18,” y’know, the really slushy one that tends to get read out a weddings…

And if that all seems a bit too good to be true, how about “Sonnet 130,” read by Alan Rickman? It’s the one in which Shakespeare in completely the opposite direction, disassociating the object of his affections from the wonders of nature, but with a little twist in the second half, mocking his own poetic ardor, as if to say “I do love her, but poetry can be daft sometimes:”

And finally, a rare treat. Some footage from a 1970s edition of the British chat show Parkinson, with Maggie Smith and Kenneth Williams reading John Betjeman‘s “Death in Leamington,” in front of Sir John himself (jump ahead to 5.20 for the poem):

Note: if that’s an actor too many, let’s even it up with Dylan Thomas reading his own very appropriate work, “Poem in October.”

See more:
Which Poem Makes Tom Hiddleston Cry? This One…
Idris Elba Responds to ‘I’m Sorry I’m Not Idris Elba’ Poem
Happy Birthday, T.S. Eliot: 20 of His Most Life-Affirming Quotes
The Poetry of ‘Doctor Who’

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By Fraser McAlpine