Saturday, February 11, 2012

And this is only earth, my dear

In which our Diva pauses to remember

One hundred fifty years ago today, Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal Rossetti died of a laudanum overdose at the age of 32.

I had grand ambitions to finish writing Unvarnished, the one-woman show about her I first conceived nearly a decade ago, in time to be well on the way to production on this date, if not actually up and running. And, well, that hasn't happened for a variety of reasons, chief among them being that I'm both a busy actor and an unreliable writer. :-)

If finances and other obligations were kinder, I'd be in London right now, sharing the day with other admirers drawn by the memorial events scheduled at Highgate Cemetery with the participation of Jan Marsh and Lucinda Hawksley, two of the primary authors whose work has kept Lizzie's work and story alive in the public consciousness. I had the good fortune to meet the down-to-earth and gracious Lucinda for coffee on a whirlwind day in London last February. (So whirlwind, in fact, that I was appallingly late for our agreed-upon time, but she was very kind about it despite her own busy schedule).

Earlier that day, with just an hour or so to visit the Tate Britain, I made the decision to spend essentially all of that time in the "Key Works From the Historic Collection" room, whose far end is home to a concentration of the Pre-Raphaelite favorites that have accumulated on my bookshelf for two decades. After giving each painting a few minutes' close examination, and chatting for a few minutes with the lovely middle-aged lady who was kind enough to take a snapshot of me with Ophelia, I took a seat on a nearby bench and scribbled a dozen-plus journal pages of observations, not so much on the paintings themselves, but on the way people approached and interacted with them. And, of course, specifically with Ophelia, so famous, and such a magnet for adolescent girls in particular. I heard a pair of friends, perhaps twelve or thirteen, chattering their way down the long room behind me, grow hushed and suddenly serious as they approached.

It's a modestly-sized work, placed a bit to the side in the composition of a wall dominated by Burne-Jones' King Cophetua and the Beggar-Maid, which I had somehow never processed was quite that enormous. But nobody misses it.

I sat there for about half an hour, and at one point my journal scribbling became a poem, something I've dabbled in but never been at all serious about. I don't know whether I'll end up using it somehow in Unvarnished. I don't really see how, as it doesn't mesh in style with Lizzie's own poetry, or that of her contemporaries, that I'm weaving into my text. So maybe here is where it belongs...

                               22 Feb 2011
                               Tate Britain
Like Snow White in her glass coffin
I am encased safely behind a pane
A window into our mad bewildering
                    idealistic youth
They walk past me, speaking in
                    reverent tones, as if in church
Or in a graveyard
This is more my monument than that
                   stone at Highgate, where I lie
Among those who share my name
                   by marriage
But who never quite wished
                   to share that name
                   with me.
There I am difficult to find, more
                  difficult to reach
You must know where to look
                  and whom to ask
                  and hope it is not one of
                  those who guard me so
                  closely from those who seek
                  me there
Here, behind the glass, my colours
                  are undimmed
My face as fresh as they told
                 Gabriel it was when they
                  brought me up from
                  the earth
A pretty lie to assuage his
                  guilt, his turmoil
                  at recovering that
                  which he should never have
                  given me at all
                  I had no need of them
On a dark night in Highgate
The tale of my uncorrupted state
                  was a lie
Here it is the truth.
What you seek is this
The girl in the water
She's easy to find
She hangs on the line
Wouldn't Mr Millais have
                   been pleased by that?


Studiesinlight said...

Yes, he would have been pleased.

Rachel said...

What a wonderful poem. :-)

Unknown said...

Thank you both so much!