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Digital Subscriptions > Prospect Magazine > June 2019 > Late reading with Clive James

Late reading with Clive James

Recovering at home, Clive finds that lovely words count more and more—and recalls Cleopatra

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.”

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