NOW, Voyager


This poem is a favorite of mine. I was first introduced to it as a preteen, when I discovered old movies with the help of my mother. I loved everything old Hollywood, the black and whites of the early years of cinema. Those old films transported me to exotic places I could never have imagined and introduced me to glamorous people whose only concern was whether they would make the opening curtain at the opera.

“Now, Voyager,” was released in 1942. It starred Bette Davis, my all time favorite actress, Paul Henried and Claude Rains. It had all the ingredients I loved in a movie. Rich people with problems, travel, fashion, and Bette Davis. I still watch it from time to time.

The story unfolds as Charlotte (Davis) a sheltered young woman from a wealthy Rockefeller type family lead by an overbearing mother, suffers a nervous breakdown. She is introduced to a psychotherapist, Dr. Jaquith (Rains), who takes her away to a place in the country to recover. The day of her release from the institution, she asks if she must leave as she is not certain she can make it on the outside. Dr. Jaquith assures her she will be fine and hands her a slip of paper, saying “If old Walt didn’t have you in mind when he wrote this he had lots of others like you. He’s put into words what I would like to say to you, now, and far better than I could ever express it.”

Charlotte reads aloud, “The untold want of life and love ne’re granted. Now, Voyager (emphasis on voyager), sail thou forth to seek and find.”

An arrangement is made for Charlotte to take the place of a socialite on a cruise ship who was unable to take the trip at the last minute. Bringing the theme of voyager into the story. She uses the socialite’s name on board, wears her clothes, and during the journey meets a married man with children, traveling alone on business. They have a wonderful time together as friends, but then fall madly in love as always people did in those old movies. When the ship reaches port, they agree to go their separate ways; she would go back to her mother’s home and he would go back to his wife.

I have watched this movie hundreds of times. The Whitman poem is an urging to be curious, to not wait for life and love to happen to me, but to go out and get it. I took this as my own signature poem, my mantra. As a preteen, I made a pact with myself that someday I would launch and make all my dreams come true. I always had an adventurous spirit. I was going to travel to exotic places. I was going to meet interesting people. I was going to write about all I saw, who I met and what I did.

Fast forward to current day, I am 55 years old, I still love the old movies, and still seek the ever changing untold want.

A few weeks ago, we were asked to read our favorite poem aloud in one of my college classes. I, of course, chose this one and I read it the way Bette did in 1942. The instructor smiled faintly and said “Do you think you are reading it correctly? What do you think it means?”

I said I had been reading it this way since I was 10 or 11 years old. I told her I believed it was an urging not to wait on the shore, but to get in the boat and find the life I want. The untold want is dreams not shared, the secret ones held in the heart.

“Think of a way,” she said, “that you could read it differently. How can you change the emphasis maybe. Could an inflection be made that would bring new meaning to this lovely poem you have carried with you for so long?”

She told me to think about it for a while and called on others to share their poems. I closed my eyes and looked at the words that have been written on my heart since childhood. I recited them over and over until out of nowhere the often repeated words took new form. The emphasis was no longer on “voyager” it was somewhere else. My eyes flew open in surprise and she was smiling at me.

“Do you have it now?” she asked.

“I think so,” I said.

“Read it again.”

“The untold want, by life and land ne’er granted. NOW, voyager, sail thou forth to seek and find.”

“Yes!” she applauded. “Exactly that. The words have always been the what for you, but you were overlooking the when.”

It is so strange that this two line poem could carry so much meaning for me all these years, and then suddenly have even more meaning. NOW is the time for this voyager. Now.

At the end of the movie, Charlotte and Jerry find themselves together again, standing in front of an open window. They have come to terms with their love for each other, but tragically, romantically agree they will never be together in the traditional sense.

As they look out to the night sky, Charlotte says “Oh, Jerry, let’s not reach for the moon, we have the stars.”

The credits roll. It is a lovely quote to end the movie, designed to break hearts, bring tears and romanticize sacrifice. I’ve always loved it. But unlike the poem, I do not claim it for my own. Nah, I want to reach for moon and the stars, and I want to start the voyage NOW.

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