By Katja Kramer
I must have been no older than thirteen when I watched Splendor in the Grass (1961) for the first time in my life. Back then, the oh-so pretty title of the movie was the very reason I decided to watch it. Now, years later, the poem that inspired the title is the reason I so vividly remember the movie even now. I can still quote the following lines off the top of my head—spoken in the film by heartbroken teenager, Deanie:
What though the radiance which was once so bright
Be now for ever taken from my sight,
Though nothing can bring back the hour
Of splendour in the grass, of glory in the flower;
We will grieve not, rather find
Strength in what remains behind
William Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” part of which contains these remarkable lines, was originally published in 1807. Even centuries later, we can feel the impact his words make. This particular part of the poem may have been used in a 1961 movie, but the message it entails reaches far beyond the screen and the story that is shown.
It is a gut-wrenching internal conflict that—dare I say—every single person encounters once in their life, at a minimum: do I allow myself to grieve a romantic loss just a little longer or do I learn to take things as they come and move on? Imagine a person close to you dies; what do you do? Imagine your best friend of many years betrays you; what do you do? Imagine—to include the example of the characters in the movie mentioned above—your high school sweetheart who you are still in love with marries someone else; what do you do?
According to the poem, the answer is quite clear: you find strength and happiness in the memory, while learning to live with the reality that the relationship is over. Though you may have lost the one person that brought you the most happiness and your world seems to be falling apart, you manage not to fall apart. But is that really the proper thing to do—to move on just like that, as if your pain does not even matter? Is that even what Wordsworth, or the movie, is suggesting?
Wordsworth talks about “radiance,” he talks about “splendor,” he talks about “glory”—or, in other words, about something incredibly precious, brilliant, magnificent. The expression that distinctly stands out for me, though, is “splendor in the grass.” Clearly, it is what stood out for the filmmakers of the movie as well. So, let us take a moment and think about what is meant here. What is special about grass? Well, it is usually green; it is common in our everyday lives; we sometimes walk on it. Actually, grass is one of the most ordinary things in life. With that in mind, why would Wordsworth use such an expression? Probably for this exact reason. There is nothing particularly special about grass; when you add the “splendor,” however, it seems to become far more fascinating than you ever would have thought it could be.
Most will probably agree that for Deanie, her first and beloved boyfriend Bud is the one who brings splendor into her otherwise ordinary life. Or, to phrase it differently, Bud is Deanie’s splendor; he is her “glory in the flower.” When she loses him, she loses herself. She feels as though nothing in her life makes sense anymore and she is ultimately committed to a mental institution. Deanie sees Bud again after a long time, they have a short conversation and eventually go their separate ways—recognizing and at last accepting that their story is a part of the past now. In the final scene of the movie, Deanie, after being asked whether she still loves Bud, remembers the lines from Wordsworth’s poem with a vague smile. Not only does she finally understand what they mean, she experiences the loss of the “radiance” Wordsworth writes about firsthand; and now, it is time to move-forward—finding “strength in what remains behind.” Now, what exactly is that? What “remains” once the “splendor” is gone?
The most evident answer would be: grass. And it is not entirely off, but one needs to bear in mind that once you have seen that grass in a different light than usual, you will never fully bounce back from it—the splendor that was there at one point leaves an impact and the memory of it never fully leaves you. “What remains behind” are memories and those memories are what you need to “find strength in,” according to the poem. These words do not inevitably mean that we should not allow ourselves to grieve a beloved we lost, a relationship that ended, a happier time in our lives, though, or do they? Let us look at what happens with Deanie after the breakup.
Deanie, having suffered a mental breakdown in the middle of class, is sent to a psychiatric hospital. Released after quite some time, she is about to marry another man and informs Bud, who is himself married and a father with a second child on the way. As the audience watches these final moments of the movie, of course we wonder: are they happy? Considering that Deanie and Bud each claim to not think about whether they are or not too much anymore… it sounds rather unlikely. Nevertheless, they agree that at the end of the day, “you gotta take what comes” (2:01:29-2:01:36) and we know what that looks like: you learn to come to terms with reality time and again, regardless how much you may despise it. The characters have both grieved their relationship in their own way; in one way or another, they probably still do—and yet, it is crystal clear to both that “nothing can bring back the hour / Of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower,” meaning the time they were young, together and in love.
Wordsworth’s famous lines tell us that sometimes, we need to accept whatever comes our way and be grateful for what we have, even though it might not be what we want. This does not mean we are not allowed to grieve—some grieve differently than others, some longer and others shorter; the decisive point is that one of these days, this sorrow and pain will make us stronger. The “radiance” may have left us, the “splendor” may have vanished, the “glory” may be gone, but the memories of it once being there—they will never disappear from our minds and hearts. So grieve as long as it takes, but know that this pain is not forever and someday, you will learn to “find strength in what remains behind.”
1. Splendor in the Grass. Directed by Elia Kazan. Warner Bros. Pictures, 1961.
2. Wordsworth, William. “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45536/ode-intimations-of-immortality-from-recollections-of-early-childhood.