Saturday, February 7, 2015

Dame Judi Put Me To Shame

Dame Judi Put Me To Shame

She was all of seventy-eight when I saw her on stage.  Dame Judi Dench.  She is not a tall woman, yet when she strolled from the wings she seemed to fill the The Noel Coward Theatre with an unearthly light that soared through the silent air, coalescing somewhere near the opulent ceiling before gathering itself, turning, and focusing its glow entirely upon her diminutive frame.  One simply could not look anywhere else.  This was a new play, with long, emotional soliloquies delivered by Dame Judi in her role as the elderly Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.  The play had some problems, but Dame Judi was magnificent.  The words she spoke could not have been buried in her memory like Shakespeare, ready to call up on a whim.  No, these were all new words and not only had she memorized them, she knew them so well as to imbue them with appropriate sensitivity and feeling.  She was Alice.  I was transfixed.

Angela Lansbury is currently on tour in Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit, never missing a beat, or a line, as she dances and prances across the stage as Madame Arcarti.   She is earning rave reviews wherever she goes.  She is eighty-nine.

Now, I do both the New York and Los Angeles Times crosswords every day.  I knit rather complicated patterns every night.  I read.  I write.  Yet when I witness the accomplishments of these two women, and others like them, I cringe at how little I challenge myself.  My soul, I doubt I could learn even one paragraph of the dense dialog Miss Dench preformed so effortlessly that Spring night I saw her in London.  Or could I?  Is there a challenge I could set for myself that might hone and sharpen the more indolent cells of my brain till they gleamed as brightly, well nearly, as hers?   And that’s when I thought about poetry.

How wonderful, how marvelous it would be to call up stanzas of great poetry whenever one wished.  Imagine if you will, a dull party, one where guests stand shoulder to shoulder with glasses of flat champagne in their hands, nodding politely at soporific conversation as they long to be home watching re-runs of Downton Abbey.  Imagine I slam down my drink, stride to the center of the room, hop gracefully atop a tufted ottoman and launch into a recitation of “Casey At The Bat”, in full-throated, confident voice…..

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

  All boredom now extinguished; the party crackles with fun till the wee hours.  

Or…. snowed in at an airport in Manchester, I spy a fidgety child on the verge of a meltdown.  I motion the tyke to my side, widen my eyes, lower my voice and begin…. 

“’Twas brillig, and the slithy roves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe,
 All mimsy were the borogoves, 
And the mome raths outgrabe.”

The Jabberwocky has been known to silence the most fractious of minds.  The child is awe-struck to the point of fright, but at least he’s quiet now. 

I could throw the words of Seamus Heaney in the face of the news of the day:
“History says, don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme” 

Poetry has influenced my view of the world since childhood.  I sit by the window on stormy nights and Robert Louis Stevenson is at my side whispering, “Whenever the moon and stars are set, Whenever the wind is high, All night long in the dark and wet, A man goes riding by.  Late at night when the fires are out, Why does he gallop and gallop about?”.  Because of Dylan Thomas I see “wordy women and rows of star-gestured children in the park”.    Because of Mary Oliver I frequently ask myself “what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”. 

So, as a personal challenge, I have decided to memorize a favorite poem.  Choosing just one is a difficult task.  “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas is a favourite, as is Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116.  And of course, there’s always “Casey At The Bat”.  But these lines from Tennyson are calling my name.  What do you think?  Can I do it?
If Dame Judi can, well so can I. 
Read this out loud and think…. 
Care to join me?

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all:  but something ere the end, 
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes:  The slow moon climbs:  the deep
Moans round with many voices.  Come, my friends, 
“Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
Push off, and sitting well in order smite
The sounding furrows;  for my purpose holds
To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
Of all the western stars, until I die.
It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles, 
And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
We are not now that strength which in the old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts, 
Made week by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

For more inspiration, try this book.


  1. Well you can out do me, I can't knit , I guess I read and blog and eat and cook and dream of buying lovely things I can't afford. That is my talent.

    I would love to see one of those ladies on stage.

    I do need to broaden my horizon this year, now that you mentioned all this

  2. Ah Yes, Dame Judi - did you know that her eyesight is now so bad that she cannot read and has to have friends to help her learn her lines?
    I saw her as Portia at Stratford many years ago - she was absolutely show-stopping then, and she hasn't changed. I agree her presence fills the theatre.
    On the subject of learning poetry - and reading or telling it to children - on of my favourites is Thomas Gray (of Elegy fame)'s 'On a Favourite Cat drowned in a Tub of Goldfishes.' Do have a read of it and see what you think.

  3. My favorite memorized poem is "Invictus." And another is Edward Lear's "The Jumblies"..........they went to sea in a sieve. One I have always loved but haven't memorized is "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner." I used to read that illustrated poem to my dog. No, I'm not crazy. I just needed someone to listen.

  4. "Because I could not stop for Death....He kindly stopped for me....The carriage held but just Ourselves... and Immortality..." Emily Dickinson. Fell in love with her writing in a college class on American poets and committed many of her poems to memory. As memorization is a wonderful exercise for the brain, back in the day, I had a 9th grade English class memorize "Casey at the Bat". They loved the exercise and felt very accomplished. Years later, whenever they came to school to visit, they began their greeting with that poem. Angela Muller

  5. There are many poems that move me and I have memorized a few, including Shakespeare's Sonnet 116. But I have not been granted a good memory, and when I try to cull a poem from the file, I come up with snippets and shards. I was saying to my daughter yesterday, how I would love to be blessed with a good reading voice--like Judy Dench, for instance. She told me to download Benedict Cumberbatch reading John Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale". It was beautiful.

  6. Lovely post. And go for it! Memorize poems and knock 'em dead at gatherings and airports. I think that's a cool idea! You mentioned two of my favorite actresses. Wonderful to see them so strong and vital at this stretch of life's road. What an inspiration to us all.

  7. Now Jabberwocky would really be a challenge. I have memorized Wordsworth and Robert Frost, but in an older mind, it is harder than one might expect. But, they are burned into the brain now. I could barely limp across that stage then die of fright. What greatness they must have.

  8. I can remember my mother-in-law in her seventies or eighties memorizing poems. I think one must train one's mind to this type of exercise, and, certainly, actors have the hang of it. I think of all the lyrics to songs I know, but only when the music is playing and I can sing along. Now why is that? If I have to come up with the lyrics on my own, it's only a word here or snatch of phrase there, never mind the tune. (Very embarrassing trying to hum tunelessly and saying 'something, something, something' to my husband when I'm asking his help in remembering a song.) I think the things we memorized as children stay with us the longest. So, kudos to you for attempting, but I think this would be disappointingly frustrating for me. I could never have made it as an actor (and I can't remember one line of the Latin play I was in at college).

  9. two of my most favorite ladies of the theatre. and simply favorite for their own real lives. they are inspirations for sure.
    and i think your pursuit is admirably strenuous!
    my favorite form of poetry is haiku. i have written many. and love the form.
    i'd be luckier to remember some of the ancient favorites of those... since they're only three lines! about my speed i'm afraid.

  10. My precious father, who died a year ago this past November, recited poetry throughout my childhood, until in the last years he lost his words entirely to Alzheimer's. In the preceding years, when he was beginning to forget my name, he could still break out in his best British accent: "You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din! Tho' I've belted you an flayed you, By the Living Gawd that made you, You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!" I still cry when I remember the paragraphs he memorized with such passion! In my own journey, one I memorized years ago that has held me through many Life moments BECAUSE I knew it by heart is: "as once the winged energy of delight..." by Rilke. (I think it's my gospel) Next up because of your challenge: Wendell Berry's The Peace of Wild Things.

  11. Wonderful post. You've inspired me to pull some of my poetry books off the shelf tonight, have a good read and find something to memorize.

    And since I will be spending time with my 8 mo old grandson tomorrow, I will pull out his poetry books (ah, Shel Silverstein) for a little quiet time together. Lucky for him, his mother's friends made a request that her baby shower gifts come in the form of books. He already has a the beginnings of a large and lovely library with many classics.

  12. Aaah! That beautiful, talented Dame Judi! She has been my favorite lady of the stage and screen ever since I first saw her performance as Sally Bowles in 'Cabaret' on the London stage in 1968 when home for a visit! Bob made it an unforgettable night at the Palace Theatre in the West End - even presented me with the traditional box of chocolates to nibble!

    Angela Lansbury also amazing - how I would love to see her performance as Madame A. These aging mavens of the theatre certainly put me to shame - I think they must have strong backs!

    Hugs - Mary

  13. Pamela,
    This inspires me to try harder, reach further, stretch myself. I have entered this age with vigor and enthusiasm. I hope it lasts. I will memorize a poem, maybe I'll start with the book you suggest.

  14. I've seen Judy Dench on stage a number to times, she is totally believable in whatever role she takes. I saw her first as Titania in a matineé performance at Stratford. It was sometime in the early '60's I think. She looked every inch a fairy, clothed in a dress of cobwebs, surely she could fly. After the performance I bumped into her in a corner shop. She was wearing a red miniskirt and looked very mortal - I was astonished by the transformation!
    Like music, the rhythms within poetry create pathways and the lines stay in your memory. My mother was a great one for quoting Yeats. At school we learnt a poem each week; Frost, Blunden, Thomas and McNiece. Since then I've added so many favourites to the list so I'm spoilt for choice as to who I would choose to learn by heart.

  15. Pamela it never ceases to astound me how these great actors can perform so magnificently night after night after night! I love theatre!

    The Arts by Karena New Feature

  16. An inspiring post, :Pamela, - it strengthens my resolve to 'keep right on to the end" with music and poetry, and also to satisfy my yearning to weave something really delicate and beautiful, with fine threads and lots of math in the planning to stir my brain around as I enter this new decade. I have an English friend who is enamoured of Judi Dench - she watches a part of "As time goes by" each and every night....

    I think it's the poems that we gather when young that stay with us, and so I have parts of Emily Dickinson and Sara Teasdale all mixed up with Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry and Ted Kooster, the poets of my later life.

  17. You have rekindled my desire to have my 7th graders learn a poem or two by heart before they leave my class. Last year I had students memorize "Who Has Seen the Wind" by Christina Rossetti--the perfect poem for our windy clime! Even I, with my poor capacity for memorization, managed to learn it. Years ago, when my parents traveled to Europe with my aunt and uncle, my mother said my aunt--the quintessential old farm woman--surprised everyone by spouting lines of poetry from memory! And when her own poems came to light, well, I was speechless. They were marvelous! If she could find time to memorize and write poetry, raising five kids and running a dairy, then there is no excuse for me. Memorizing poetry is so "old school," but carrying the cherished lines of well-known wordsmiths in our hearts, and recalling them when they are summoned--or summon us, enriches our lives in ways that no standardized test can hope to measure.

  18. Its surprising how many poems and fragments of poems stay in the mind forever, even when you haven't made the effort to learn them off by heart. I learnt 'The Death of Cuchulain' by WB Yeats when I was 17 and I don't remember all of it , but it was quite a feat. I think Actors are amazing when they learn huge long parts. Happy 2015.

  19. Anything by Ogden Nash delights children and those short poems are so easy for them to memorize quickly so they can turn around and entertain the grownups in their families, to much applause (it was like that in my family, anyway). My own favorite because of its sing-song qualities, imagery and that ineffable quality of inevitableness is Eve by Ralph Hodgson.

  20. I LOVE Dame Judi …… I love everything about her { and Angela Lansbury too } It is amazing how hard they work in their mature years. It's probably that, that keeps them so young.
    Good luck learning your lines Pamela !! XXXX

  21. I would have loved to have seen Dame Judi in that production. Cheers to poetry and to creative women, such as you!

  22. Brilliant idea! I will join you in memorizing some poetry. I'm also learning to play the accordion at age 48, and I can almost feel my brain rewiring itself from one practice session to the next. As a member of the San Francisco Accordion club (which has been around since 1915) I've been honored to see performances by several amazing players in their 90's. Those guys have forgotten more about playing accordion than I will probably ever know. Love your blog!

  23. From Dame Judi herself:

    "In response to the numerous articles in the media concerning my eye condition - macular degeneration - I do not wish for this to be overblown," Dench said in a statement emailed to Reuters.

    "This condition is something that thousands and thousands of people all over the world are having to contend with. It's something that I have learnt to cope with and adapt to - and it will not lead to blindness."

    She is SUCH a class act . . .

  24. Inspired by this wonderful (and funny - the hopping, gracefully atop a tufted ottoman tickled me pink) post, I sat my three kids down and read Jabberwocky to them. They loved it! We moved on to Edward Lear and swung by Shel Silverstein briefly - making a language play/nonsense themed week. They are chomping at the bit for more. Thanks for reminding me that poetry is not for later to be studied in High School, but to be enjoyed on a regular basis - like chocolate. Husband was bemused to arrive home and hear them running around yelling, "He left it dead, and with its head He went galumphing back." So much fun.

  25. Nice share! Thanks a lot for such a lovely blog posting this time around as well.

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