Sunday, 20 May 2007


At the recent memorial service for Ian Richardson, Dame Helen Mirren read a poem entitled 'Dirge without Music' by the American lyrical poet and playwright, Edna St Vincent Millay (1892 – 1950), the first woman to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.

It has something in common with Dylan Thomas' well-known verse, 'Do not go gentle into that good night...' and W H Auden's 'Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone...' (made famous by the film Four Weddings and a Funeral) in that it is about the raging anger that is an intrinsic part of grief.

Dirge without Music

I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, --- but the best is lost.

The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.


Dame Helen's reading was charged with high emotion and she was all but overcome by the final line of the second verse. This was hardly surprising since, without question, this is one of the most passionate and painful responses to the death of a loved one I have ever encountered...

On the subject of grief and anger...

Bela, a fellow admirer of Ian Richardson, attending the service, refers to this poem and its reading in a post headed Grotesque and Unseemly, a title that refers not to Dame Helen's touching performance but to the scrum of photographers and autograph-hunters that flocked like vultures around the steps of St Paul's Covent Garden, following the service, button-holing every famous name they could recognise.

I too was appalled, but decided not to mention it in my report because I didn't want to sound a sour note when writing about something that had been a loving, celebratory service, honouring a fine actor.

But Bela is absolutely right: the display of insensitivity was staggering and anger-inducing and - whilst everyone attending the service behaved impeccably and gave the photographers and autograph collectors the snaps and inscriptions they wanted - it was a reminder of the extraordinary level of intrusiveness that celebrities are expected to endure.

What staggered me, as I noted on Bela's blog, was that some of the autograph seekers didn't even wait until people got outside the church... I happened to be coming down the aisle behind Elizabeth Spriggs - who was walking on a stick and with some difficulty - when a fan pushed his way in front and thrust an open autograph book and a pen at her. Then, having got her signature, he snatched back the book and dashed off in pursuit of Prunella Scales.

[Image: Tomb on San Michele, Venice © Brian Sibley]


Good Dog said...

That is a marvellous, and certainly an incredibly powerful poem.

Granted the memorial service was a celebration of a wonderful life led, but there is always that terrible feeling of loss that lowers the spirits. So having an autograph book shoved in your face immediately afterwards... don't these utterly insensitive ghouls get it?

When the Film BAFTAs were televised earlier this year, I wasn't too impressed by the interviewer, situated just off stage, who collared Dame Helen Mirren, right after she had thanked Ian Richardson in her acceptance speech for his support when she was starting out, and was obviously still shaken by his abrupt passing.

Bela said...

Any sensitive person would have been sickened by the behaviour of those 'vultures', as you so rightly call them, Brian. It really was a disgraceful sight.

I felt very sorry for Helen Mirren at the BAFTAs. It was so cruel! Couldn't they have let the poor woman cry in peace?

Thank you very much for mentioning my post. :-)

Suzanne said...

As a banal member of the public, I have always been puzzled by the manner in which people seek autographs. I was at a blues festival the other day where I bought the CD of one of the performers who came to sign it for me. He was a real sweetie, but I didn't have the first idea what to say to him apart from "your concert was brilliant, thanks". It's just a question of common politeness, but on the extremely rare occasions that I have had the opportunity to breathe the same air as some celebrity, I become completely tongue-tied and prefer to watch from afar rather than bother them with my vacant stare and shy stutterings.
As for intruding on people's grief like that, it is an absolute disgrace and vulture is too good a word.
I didn't even dare wonder round the famous church St Sépulchre in Paris last year because there was a kid's funeral in place, although God knows I was dying to look for the "Rose line". I just stood at the back, said a prayer and scarpered.

LisaH said...

It's not surprising that Edna St Vincent Millay won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry.
I too attended the service and stood for a while in the vestibule (with a delightful chap called Brian Sibley and his equally charming neighbour James, who had interviewed Ian Richardson whilst he was performing in the Magistrate). The rehearsal for the service was just finishing and we were waiting patiently for the doors to open.
Suddenly a man in a baseball cap pushed his way to the front looking for an Order of Service.
Yes, the autograph-hunters et al were disgraceful - some of them even followed family and guests round to a nearby restaurant and stationed themselves outside.
Ian Richardson was always very gracious to fans and was extremely diligent in responding to correspondence.
After the Gielgud Centenary Celebration in 2004, Ian was very annoyed by the number of collectors who camped outside the Stage Door of the theatre. He couldn't even get out for a very late, quiet bite of lunch after rehearsing in the afternoon without being swamped by them.
He felt it was particularly unfair that people more interested on obtaining items for Ebay were preventing genuine admirers and theatre goers - who actually paid to go and see performances - from getting near to the actors.
He would have been appalled by the thoughtless actions on Tuesday.

Boll Weavil said...

On a different tack to the above posts, as a poet,a bit of me always dies when I read something so well written. I get incredibly jealous of such natural ability.To exentuate the good, what a fantastic tribute to a true professional.As to the ghouls, from the Pharoahs tomb robbers onwards there have always been those that would dishonour the dead.They are soon forgotten but our kings are still remembered.

Suzanne said...

Sorry, not St Sépulchre, St Sulpice! Slip of the tongue...

Bill Casselman said...

Brian -

I arose this morning in the Canadian spring renewed to ancestral vigour. I read your kind word about my website. Then I read that poem read at the great actor's funeral by Helen Mirren. I wept before breakfast. It is not on in our household.
Thank you for sharing Edna!

Bill Casselman

Carolin said...

I know I am late but I would still like to add to your blog. I attended the Memorial Service too and even before we were admitted there was one guy trying to push his way into the church so he could start taking photos and collecting autographs then! It was appalling! Thanks to a very courageous lady he did not succeed.
Thank you for sharing the wonderful poem with us. It is so beautiful and so true.

Brian Sibley said...

Thank you, Carolin...