Caesar’s dead, Cleopatra’s dead, Joan of Arc is dead, and I’m not feeling too well myself. So, or a bit like that, goes Mark Twain’s most famous joke, and I’m bound to say it’s looking slightly less funny now that I have to dictate this article through a straw. My recent operation was successful in the sense that my head is still on my shoulders, but the way my head and shoulders join up is subject to review. Should there be nuts and bolts à la Frankenstein’s monster, or would it be easier to just reshuffle the pieces at random each morning, like one of those multi-unit Henry Moore statues where the head lies around looking at the body from a distance?
I wish I could say that I cared a lot either way about Brexit, but the truth is that by this stage the things I care about seem mostly to be in the past. I’m more concerned with the apparent permanence of a single line of poetry. Perhaps I would be more interested if Brexit itself were a lovely word, but it sounds like a bad breakfast food. Lovely words count more and more. More and more a few words or a phrase are all that I remember. Sometimes the phrases of poetry occur as prose. General de Gaulle’s phrasing, often grandiloquent, became beautifully simple at the funeral of his beloved daughter, who had a particularly severe case of Down’s Syndrome. He said: “now she is like the others.” In Louis MacNeice’s poem “The Sunlight on the Garden,” MacNeice borrows Mark Antony’s goodbye line to Cleopatra: “We are dying, Egypt, dying.”
Cleopatra, the movie whose cost overruns broke the studio, is on my mind a lot lately. Perhaps it’s because Caesar, as you will recall, left Cleo’s arms only to go back to Rome and get himself murdered.
I saw the movie in 1963, the year it came out; at the cinema, there being no alternative in those days. When everyone returns to Rome, there’s a parade featuring Egyptian motifs which was very confusing to certain members of the audience, including myself, who thought they might be back in Alexandria. For filmmakers, the only reliable way to identify the setting is an appropriate screen title.…