Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Edwin Booth: Such heart-breaking loveliness

After the famous actor Edwin Booth's death, he was buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts (the rest of his family, including his infamous brother, were buried in Baltimore). Poet Thomas Bailey Aldrich served as a pallbearer for the funeral, and wrote of the experience to fellow writer William Winter on June 12, 1893.

Just as Edwin was laid in the grave, among the fragrant pine-boughs which lined it, and softened its cruelty, the sun went down. I never saw anything of such heart-breaking loveliness as this scene. There in the tender afterglow two or three hundred men and women stood silent with bowed heads. A single bird, in a nest hidden somewhere near by twittered from time to time. The soft June air, blowing across the upland, brought with it the scent of syringa blossoms from the slope below. Overhead and among the trees the twilight was gathering. "Good night, sweet Prince!" I said, under my breath.

Aldrich admitted in his account of the experience that he would have fell to the grass-covered ground and cried — "if there had not been a crowd of people."

Two years earlier, a new portrait of Booth was put on display. Aldrich was moved enough by the image to write a poem about it:

That face which no man ever saw
And from his memory banished quite,
With eyes in which are Hamlet's awe
And Cardinal Richelieu's subtle light
Looks from this frame. A master's hand
Has set the master-player here,
In the fair temple that he planned
Not for himself. To us most dear
This image of him!" It was thus
He looked; such pallor touched his cheek;
With that same grace he greeted us —
Nay, 't is the man, could it but speak!"
Sad words that shall be said some day —
Far fall the day! O cruel Time,
Whose breath sweeps mortal things away,
Spare long this image of his prime,
That others standing in the place
Where, save as ghosts, we come no more,
May know what sweet majestic face
The gentle Prince of Players wore!

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