I'm not sure why I missed reading about Elizabeth Taylor's funeral. I am sure I would have taken the opportunity had it presented itself. I enjoy stories about funerals, from the one about how at Chekhov's funeral some of the mourners joined the wrong procession by mistake, following, to the sounds of a marching band, the casket of a certain General Keller, to the descriptions of the hundreds of thousands of people lining the streets to farewell Edith Piaf on her way to the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
And I have always been an Elizabeth Taylor fan. I loved her little Donald Ducky voice and the way that she converted to Judaism for love and coincidentally ended up the ne plus ultra of Jewish-American style, or at least what you might call its "ostentation" subcategory -- the outré clothes, the jewels (did she and Richard used to talk about 'rocks' or is that just my imagination), the bouffant hair. Above all, I loved her for not caring more about her incredible beauty than she did about having a good time, a trait which was never so evident as during her tumultuous and famously boozy love affair with Richard Burton.
Which brings me to my story. The other day I was killing time trolling through poetry-read-aloud clips on youtube -- don't laugh if you haven't tried it, you would be amazed at what is there -- and I came across a recording of Richard Burton reciting a poem by the great Victorian poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, a very complex and beautiful poem about the fading of beauty called "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo", and there on the little side bar was a clip about Elizabeth Taylor's funeral! It turns out that Richard used to recite this poem to her and she had asked that Colin Farrell read it at her funeral.
I don't know how Colin Farrell read it, but Richard Burton's performance of it is incredible. He is so urgent, so alive in every pore -- he really gives back to Gerard Manley Hopkins all that flood of feeling, that romantic ecstasy which used to make him throw himself down on the ground to be closer to the beauties of the earth -- and which the contortions of his inner self made him decide he had to sublimate to the love of God, depriving himself of worldly pleasures, choosing a life of discipline and drudgery as a Jesuit priest, and dying young of typhoid caused by the leaky drains of the squalid dwelling he had been assigned.
I have a wonderful scene in my mind of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in bed, in their cups, she is wearing diamonds and he is wearing nothing, and he leaps out of bed and recites this to her. Listen:
Here is the text of the poem, if you'd like to try it yourself:
The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo
(Maidens’ song from St. Winefred’s Well)
THE LEADEN ECHO
How to kéep—is there ány any, is there none such, nowhere known some, bow or brooch or braid or brace, láce, latch or catch or key to keep
Back beauty, keep it, beauty, beauty, beauty, … from vanishing away?
Ó is there no frowning of these wrinkles, rankéd wrinkles deep,
Dówn? no waving off of these most mournful messengers, still messengers, sad and stealing messengers of grey?
No there ’s none, there ’s none, O no there ’s none,
Nor can you long be, what you now are, called fair,
Do what you may do, what, do what you may,
And wisdom is early to despair:
Be beginning; since, no, nothing can be done
To keep at bay
Age and age’s evils, hoar hair,
Ruck and wrinkle, drooping, dying, death’s worst, winding sheets, tombs and worms and tumbling to decay;
So be beginning, be beginning to despair.
O there ’s none; no no no there ’s none:
Be beginning to despair, to despair,
Despair, despair, despair, despair.
THE GOLDEN ECHO
There ís one, yes I have one (Hush there!);
Only not within seeing of the sun,
Not within the singeing of the strong sun,
Tall sun’s tingeing, or treacherous the tainting of the earth’s air,
Somewhere elsewhere there is ah well where! one,
Oné. Yes I can tell such a key, I do know such a place,
Where whatever’s prized and passes of us, everything that ’s fresh and fast flying of us,
seems to us sweet of us and swiftly away with, done away with, undone,
Undone, done with, soon done with, and yet dearly and dangerously sweet
Of us, the wimpled-water-dimpled, not-by-morning-matchèd face,
The flower of beauty, fleece of beauty, too too apt to, ah! to fleet,
Never fleets móre, fastened with the tenderest truth
To its own best being and its loveliness of youth: it is an everlastingness of, O it is an all youth!
Come then, your ways and airs and looks, locks, maiden gear, gallantry and gaiety and grace,
Winning ways, airs innocent, maiden manners, sweet looks, loose locks, long locks, lovelocks, gaygear, going gallant, girlgrace—
Resign them, sign them, seal them, send them, motion them with breath,
And with sighs soaring, soaring síghs deliver
Them; beauty-in-the-ghost, deliver it, early now, long before death
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty, back to God, beauty's self and beauty's giver.
See; not a hair is, not an eyelash, not the least lash lost; every hair
Is, hair of the head, numbered.
Nay, what we had lighthanded left in surly the mere mould
Will have waked and have waxed and have walked with the wind what while we slept,
This side, that side hurling a heavyheaded hundredfold
What while we, while we slumbered.
O then, weary then why should we tread?
O why are we so haggard at the heart, so care-coiled, care-killed, so fagged, so fashed, so cogged, so cumbered,
When the thing we freely forfeit is kept with fonder a care,
Fonder a care kept than we could have kept it, kept
Far with fonder a care (and we, we should have lost it) finer, fonder
A care kept. — Where kept? Do but tell us where kept, where. —
Yonder. — What high as that! We follow, now we follow. — Yonder, yes yonder, yonder,