There are many cultural anniversaries this year - the publication of Pride and Prejudice, the deaths of Sylvia Plath, Robert Frost, and CS Lewis to name a few. But one in danger of being overlooked is the 1993 film Groundhog Day, turning 20 this year. This is one of those singular films that comes along every now and then that manages to combine comedy, novelty, and philosophy in a way that gives it a (if you'll pardon me) timeless appeal. Not all that popular at the time, the film has a vast critical afterlife, and a following among various faithful who all see in it their own theologies (as this 2003 New York Times article notes). Watching it for roughly the 114th time, I was struck less by the philosophical journey of Bill Murray's character Phil through hedonism, nihilism, charlatanism, to creative humanism (explored here) and more by the breadth of literary reference in the film.
Andie McDowell's character Rita quotes Sir Walter Scott, and has studied nineteenth-century French poetry in college. Phil quotes lines from Jacques Brel that roughly translate “The girl I will love / is like a fine wine / that gets a little better / every morning”; later he tries to entice her to his bed with promises of Baudelaire. When he begins to undergo his transformation, we find him reading Treasury of the Theatre: From Agamemnon to A Month in the Country in a cafe; the portent of further enlightenment to come. He cites Chekhov in his final weather broadcast. On his last evening with Rita, they are reading from an anthology called Poems for Every Mood, and Phil says the last thing Rita heard before falling asleep was “Only God can make a tree,” the last line of Joyce Kilmer's poem “Trees” (which I've posted before). All of these references (and I'm sure there are others) are significant in the film's imaginative schema, where mortality, time, seasons, weather, human and divine nature are all entwined.
One in particular leapt out at me, and it's one of those instances where the two lines quoted fit the scene nicely, but the entire poem fits the film in a much richer way. The lines are Coleridge's and Phil quotes them in passing to an inconsequential fellow guest: “Winter slumbering in the open air, / Wears on his smiling face a dream of spring.” They sound hopeful, but they're from a sonnet called “Work without Hope,” which speaks to Phil's predicament as a man at odds with nature's flow, “the sole unbusy thing” trapped in an eternal day that no tomorrow illumines with hope. The spell breaks, though, when Phil (“love” in Greek) learns to work, and to love, without hope.
All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair -The bees are stirring - birds are on the wing -And Winter slumbering in the open air,Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.Yet, well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,And hope without an object cannot live.