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Helen McCrory

A poignant love duet in verse

Helen McCrory with her husband, Damian Lewis. Mike Marsland/WireImage

“I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnet 43 was read by Helen McCrory at the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2014. The actress died in April, aged 52, but her husband, Damian Lewis, has since found a 45-minute recording of them exchanging love poetry at the festival. Their performance is “funny, tender, poignant and often heartbreaking”, says The Times.

The subjects of the poems range from courtship to married life, betrayal and death. But there’s plenty of humour. McCrory begins an extract from Romeo and Juliet by saying: “They said I was too old to read this, but I feel the seats at the back will get it – the front, you’re going to have to use your imagination.” The couple argue over who gets the most applause – “There could be arguments in the car to London afterwards” – and joke about putting on American and Scottish accents. When McCrory stumbles over the world “similarly”, she looks to Lewis for help.

Listen to the podcast here.

Let me count the ways

🥰 🌹 👰 💔 McCrory and Lewis read 33 poems and extracts at Cheltenham, covering courtship, first nights, the early days of a relationship, roses, marriage, the aftermath of a break-up and fond memories. Here’s a complete list.

Romeo and Juliet, Act III, Scene II, William Shakespeare
Love’s Philosophy, Percy Bysshe Shelley
Mother, I Cannot Mind My Wheel, Walter Savage Landor
To His Coy Mistress, Andrew Marvell
Coupling, Fleur Adcock
May I Feel Said He, EE Cummings
The Princess, Alfred Lord Tennyson
Good God, What a Night That Was, Petronius
Life Story, Tennessee Williams
Celia Celia, Adrian Mitchell
Conviction, Stevie Smith
A Red, Red Rose, Robert Burns
One Perfect Rose, Dorothy Parker
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven, WB Yeats
It Is Here, Harold Pinter
Valentine, John Fuller
Scaffolding, Seamus Heaney
Words, Wide Night, Carol Ann Duffy
I Carry Your Heart with Me, EE Cummings
Sonnet 43, Elizabeth Barrett Browning
Sonnet 130, Shakespeare
Let Me Put It This Way, Simon Armitage
Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art, John Keats
Close, Close All Night, Elizabeth Bishop
Talking in Bed, Philip Larkin
Mrs Icarus, Carol Ann Duffy
Animals, Frank O’Hara
In the Night, Stevie Smith
One Cigarette, Edwin Morgan
So We’ll Go No More A-Roving, Lord Byron
When You Are Old, WB Yeats
An Arundel Tomb, Philip Larkin
Sonnet 55, Shakespeare