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.