Poems by Vachel Lindsay

It’s been a while since we had poetry on The Bioscope. So, to make up, here are three poems by Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931), who if not quite the poet laureate of the silent cinema was undoubtedly the poet at the time most drawn to the medium. For film historians, he may be best known as the author of The Art of the Motion Picture, a somewhat high-flown early stab at film theory, published in 1915 and still in print.

But Lindsay is best known for his poetry, with its jazz-inflected rhythms and contemporary themes. He wrote three poems on actresses who appeared in Biograph films before the First World War: Blanche Sweet, Mae Marsh and Mary Pickford. “I am the one poet”, he wrote, “who wrote them songs when they were Biograph heroines, before their names were put on the screen, or the name of their director”. That’s probably not strictly true, since he had to know their names to be able to put them in the titles of the poems, but nevertheless the poems are at one with his treatment of the moving picture as an art form.

Anyway, here they are: one interesting, one quite good, and one a little nauseating.

Blanche Sweet

Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress
(After seeing the reel called “Oil and Water”)

Beauty has a throne-room
In our humorous town,
Spoiling its hob-goblins,
Laughing shadows down.
Rank musicians torture
Ragtime ballads vile,
But we walk serenely
Down the odorous aisle.
We forgive the squalor
And the boom and squeal
For the Great Queen flashes
From the moving reel.

Just a prim blonde stranger
In her early day,
Hiding brilliant weapons,
Too averse to play,
Then she burst upon us
Dancing through the night.
Oh, her maiden radiance,
Veils and roses white.
With new powers, yet cautious,
Not too smart or skilled,
That first flash of dancing
Wrought the thing she willed:-
Mobs of us made noble
By her strong desire,
By her white, uplifting,
Royal romance-fire.

Though the tin piano
Snarls its tango rude,
Though the chairs are shaky
And the dramas crude,
Solemn are her motions,
Stately are her wiles,
Filling oafs with wisdom,
Saving souls with smiles;
‘Mid the restless actors
She is rich and slow.
She will stand like marble,
She will pause and glow,
Though the film is twitching,
Keep a peaceful reign,
Ruler of her passion,
Ruler of our pain!

Mae Marsh

Mae Marsh, Motion Picture Actress


The arts are old, old as the stones
From which man carved the sphinx austere.
Deep are the days the old arts bring:
Ten thousand years of yesteryear.


She is madonna in an art
As wild and young as her sweet eyes:
A frail dew flower from this hot lamp
That is today’s divine surprise.

Despite raw lights and gloating mobs
She is not seared: a picture still:
Rare silk the fine director’s hand
May weave for magic if he will.

When ancient films have crumbled like
Papyrus rolls of Egypt’s day,
Let the dust speak: “Her pride was high,
All but the artist hid away:

“Kin to the myriad artist clan
Since time began, whose work is dear.”
The deep new ages come with her,
Tomorrow’s years of yesteryear.

Mary Pickford

To Mary Pickford: Moving-Picture Actress
(On hearing she was leaving the moving-pictures for the stage)

Mary Pickford, doll divine,
Year by year, and every day
At the moving-picture play,
You have been my valentine.

Once a free-limbed page in hose,
Baby-Rosalind in flower,
Cloakless, shrinking, in that hour
How our reverent passion rose,
How our fine desire you won.
Kitchen-wench another day,
Shapeless, wooden every way.
Next, a fairy from the sun.

Once you walked a grown-up strand
Fish-wife siren, full of lure,
Snaring with devices sure
Lads who murdered on the sand.
But on most days just a child
Dimpled as no grown-folk are,
Cold of kiss as some north star,
Violet from the valleys wild.
Snared as innocence must be,
Fleeing, prisoned, chained, half-dead –
At the end of tortures dread
Roaring Cowboys set you free.

Fly, O song, to her to-day,
Like a cowboy cross the land.
Snatch her from Belasco’s hand
And that prison called Broadway.

All the village swains await
One dear lily-girl demure,
Saucy, dancing, cold and pure,
Elf who must return in state.

To Mary Pickford and Blanche Sweet were first published in The Congo and Other Poems (1914). Mae Marsh was first published in The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems (1917). The film Oil and Water was made in 1913. David Belasco was the theatre impresario who discovered Gladys Smith and gave her the stage name Mary Pickford.

O living pictures of the dead

Having posted that item on Geoffrey Malins’ book How I Filmed the War on his experiences of filming The Battle of the Somme, I thought it would be good to share with you this poem by that sturdy defender of Empire, Sir Henry Newbolt, which is his response to seeing the film. The title of the poem is The War Films, and it was written in 1917. Not everyone who saw the actuality films from the Western Front may have reacted it quite so religiose fashion, but it does indicate how profoundly moved many were by the sight, how the films triggered a profound sense of the great sacrifice being made by the troops. And it does have two particularly haunting opening lines:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground —
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

We have sought God in a cloudy Heaven,
We have passed by God on earth:
His seven sins and his sorrows seven,
His wayworn mood and mirth,
Like a ragged cloak have hid from us
The secret of his birth.

Brother of men, when now I see
The lads go forth in line,
Thou knowest my heart is hungry in me
As for thy bread and wine;
Thou knowest my heart is bowed in me
To take their death for mine.

More poems may follow in future posts, but meanwhile I strongly recommend Philip French and Ken Wlaschin’s Faber Book of Movie Verse (1993), which has many poems about silent cinema stars and cinema-going, both contemporary and written in retrospect.

Reel Baseball

Reel Baseball


Coming soon from Kino Video is a real labour of love – Reel Baseball, a compilation of baseball films from the silent era. The 2-DVD set (Region 1) features mostly fiction films of baseball from 1896 to 1926. The set includes two features: The Busher (1919), featuring Charles Ray, Colleen Moore, and John Gilbert; and Headin’ Home (1920), starring baseball’s greatest, Babe Ruth. The eleven shorts include Casey at the Bat or The Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire (1899), How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906), John Bunny in Hearts and Diamonds (1914), a Felix the Cat cartoon, Felix Saves the Day (1922), and a 1922 Phonofilm sound short of the evergreen poem Casey at the Bat, recited by DeWolf Hopper. The DVD is released on 3 April, and promises to be a real gem (but what a shame all they had room for on the actuality side of things was a single minute-long Kinograms newsreel of Babe Ruth).