Diana - The Last Farewell: In search of a fitting elegy for `a private face in a public place'
Saturday 06 September 1997
The oldest art is the boldest art in its impacted power to touch the core of things. And the elegies for Diana that readers have submitted show that those emotions can embrace harsh anger and bewilderment as well as grief and gratitude. That, too, belongs to the ancient tradition of the elegy. Surely the greatest example of barbed grief in English is Milton's "Lycidas".
His magnificent lament for his drowned friend Edward King rails in fierce, if veiled, images against the corrupt and bullying clergy - the tabloid executives of their time, if you like. Their "lean and flashy songs" seduce and deceive us while "the hungry sheep look up, and are not fed".
Without "Lycidas", no one would remember Edward King. Without WB Yeats, no one would remember Robert Gregory. The gifted young soldier-scholar's death in action in 1918 led Yeats to the most unforgettable image of a life that burned too brightly and too fast, consuming "the entire combustible world in one small room/ As though dried straw, and if we turn about/ The bare chimney is gone black out/ Because the work had finished in that flare".
For several centuries, indeed, true remembrance has often been reserved for loved ones near at hand. Formal elegies for public figures have called forth only dutiful and mediocre verse. One tremendous exception to this rule is Walt Whitman's elegy for Abraham Lincoln, "When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd". Yet it succeeds just because Whitman - like so many Americans in 1865, like so many Britons in 1997 - thought of the lost one as a friend who had somehow shared their common life.
Diana touched people precisely when she behaved like (in WH Auden's brilliant phrase) a "private face in a public place". As Auden noted, they are always "wiser and nicer" than the other way around. So the best elegies for her will try to voice that paradox. They will speak with a meaningful intimacy, and in an idiom that fits her life and times, about the most publicity-hounded and myth-shrouded woman on the planet. That is a taxing task for any poet, but it seems to me that Carol Rumens has (amazingly) already achieved it in "Light's Beloved".
So our dinosaur century, crashing blindly,
Took you, light's darling, into the darkest place,
"Needlessly" as we say, who must have meaning.
Only the thought of how you tried to breathe
The reeking air in that unshiftable mess,
Hangs in the mind as if intending something.
Which of us failed, however heavenless,
To stop a prayer for your unconsciousness
- No sights, sounds, feelings, thoughts, no light unkindly?
We loathe the lights today. And still they blaze
And flood the prints with you, and still we stare,
Trapped in that moral tangle, admiration.
Do lovely looks, great gifts, demand a gaze?
Already distanced by the colder glare,
You gleam on all those fading heights of fashion,
A vision we were melted by, not least,
Because you could be angry, shy, depressed:
Because, Princess, you could be "silly like us."
- Or, as you put it, "thick". No, you weren't meant
For all that Highness stuff, that stoniness.
Neither raised nor drawn to the vantage-point
Of peering down a nose of ancient lineage,
Dispensing tiny drops of sour noblesse,
At desperate bedsides you were on the level
(The sick can judge such things). And though you died
An eager girl again, dressed for the ball,
"God Save The Queen" is what the radio played.
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