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Mad, Bad and Still Dangerous to Know. Happy Birthday Lord Byron

January 22, 2016



Happy Birthday to the Most and Least Romantic of Canonical Romantic Poets.

He’s most romantic in terms of this public image and his global reach – least romantic in terms of his satirical imagination, his deflationary wit, and his preference for Alexander Pope over Wordsworth and Coleridge.

Byron has all the strengths and weaknesses of statelessness.  Being Stateless (and famous) is different from being Cosmopolitan.   Nor was he “an Englishman abroad”.  An “Englishman abroad” has a certain pre-definition, a stereotype to conform to, a set of expectations to satisfy or confound.  Byron wasn’t English.   Byron was dysfunctional Scottish aristocracy by background.  His early years were spent in Aberdeenshire, the stamping ground of James Beattie the philosopher poet who made a literary virtue out of the concept of wandering aimlessly about.

Byron was expert at connecting and dividing.  He connected internationally, becoming one of the three or four most famous humans on earth, and connected historically becoming (after his death) the most representative face of his generation.  (Dying relatively young of course only reinforced his status – if Wordsworth had wandered lonely off a cliff round about 1810, he’d be more highly regarded today.)  But being such a “representative” figure also involved separations and sunderings.  He had no nation and no family.  Many of his youthful poetic efforts concern Scotland and form an attempt to construct himself as a Highland bard.  These poems are, quite frankly, not very good.  He impersonates rather than inhabits that sort of Ossianic register, but they serve as a good reminder of the extent to which he was and was not Scottish.  (If there was such a thing as a nomadic aristocratic Scottish identity, Byron felt alienated from it when Lord Elgin swiped the Parthenon marbles.)

He was also good at isolating himself from other poets – he was a module that drifted clear of pre-requisites and co-requisites.  Like Wordsworth, he had inherited (and vastly improved upon) the example of Beattie as someone who found liberation in long stanzas about wandering.  But he had no time for Wordsworth and no acknowledgement for Beattie.  As for Keats, Byron found him plebian, desperate and perversely masturbatory.  When the mature Byron championed Pope, it was partly out of genuine respect but partly because you champion you grandparents as a way of getting at your parents.

One poet he did feel an affinity for was the safely dead and obscure Charles Churchill.  It would not be until the 1980s and Vincent Caretta’s The Snarling Muse that the real line of influence from Churchill to Byron was developed.  Churchill, like Byron, enjoyed writing lengthy, digressive and egocentric poems which combined radical political sympathies with a frank acknowledgement of sexual appetite.

A bisexual nomad, an aristocrat who “slums” as only an aristocrat can, a radical with no party, a scandal and a fascination, Byron’s successful satirical verse (and his best verse is seriously satirical)  becomes, anticipating Whitman, a song of the self.  He was an affront to England without transcending England, Scotland or Britain.  His best verse is relaxed, chatty and deflationary but, critically, leaving behind a memory and an ache for the very loyalties his has abandoned.

Fittingly he dies fighting for Greece – or a notional Greece – a hypothetical home for a hypothetical Bryon.  A real death for an unreal country.  I know he didn’t die with a bullet in his neck in the heat of battle, but he died as a result of his participation in a war – and that makes him a war casualty.  Yet he must deflate even the Greece he’s fighting for – even at the moment of inspiring people to fight for it.  He’s under no illusions as to the real state of Greece in the early nineteenth-century, but not being “under” the illusions only makes the illusions more precious.

Byron was someone who could not bear duplicitous and unsatisfying attempts to smudge dreams with reality.   His realism sharpened his dreamland – and his poetry policed the frontiers between the two.

THE isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace,—
Where Delos rose and Phoebus sprung!
Eternal summer gilds them yet,
But all, except their sun, is set.The Scian and the Teian muse,
The hero’s harp, the lover’s lute,
Have found the fame your shores refuse;
Their place of birth alone is mute
To sounds which echo further west
Than your sires’ “Islands of the Blest.”The mountains look on Marathon—
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone,
I dream’d that Greece might yet be free
For, standing on the Persians’ grave,
I could not deem myself a slave.A king sat on the rocky brow
Which looks on sea-born Salamis;
And ships, by thousands, lay below,
And men in nations;—all were his!
He counted them at break of day—
And when the sun set, where were they?And where are they? and where art thou,
My country? On thy voiceless shore
The heroic lay is tuneless now—
The heroic bosom beats no more!
And must thy lyre, so long divine,
Degenerate into hands like mine?’Tis something, in the dearth of fame,
Though link’d among a fetter’d race,
To feel at least a patriot’s shame,
Even as I sing, suffuse my face;
For what is left the poet here?
For Greeks a blush—for Greece a tear.Must we but weep o’er days more blest?
Must we but blush?—Our fathers bled.
Earth! render back from out thy breast
A remnant of our Spartan dead!
Of the three hundred grant but three,
To make a new Thermopylae.What, silent still, and silent all?
Ah! no; the voices of the dead
Sound like a distant torrent’s fall,
And answer, “Let one living head,
But one arise,—we come, we come!”
‘Tis but the living who are dumb.In vain—in vain: strike other chords;
Fill high the cup of Samian wine!
Leave battles to the Turkish hordes,
And shed the blood of Scio’s vine!
Hark! rising to the ignoble call—
How answers each bold bacchanal!You have the Pyrrhic dance as yet,
Where is the Pyrrhic phalanx gone?
Of two such lessons, why forget
The nobler and the manlier one?
You have the letters Cadmus gave—
Think ye he meant them for a slave?Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
We will not think of themes like these!
It made Anacreon’s song divine;
He served—but served Polycrates—
A tyrant; but our masters then
Were still, at least, our countrymen.The tyrant of the Chersonese
Was freedom’s best and bravest friend;
That tyrant was Miltiades!
Oh! that the present hour would lend
Another despot of the kind!
Such chains as his were sure to bind.Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
On Suli’s rock, and Parga’s shore,
Exists the remnant of a line
Such as the Doric mothers bore;
And there, perhaps, some seed is sown,
The Heracleidan blood might own.Trust not for freedom to the Franks—
They have a king who buys and sells:
In native swords and native ranks,
The only hope of courage dwells:
But Turkish force and Latin fraud
Would break your shield, however broad.Fill high the bowl with Samian wine!
Our virgins dance beneath the shade—
I see their glorious black eyes shine;
But, gazing on each glowing maid,
My own the burning tear-drop laves,
To think such breasts must suckle slaves.Place me on Sunium’s marble steep—
Where nothing, save the waves and I,
May hear our mutual murmurs sweep:
There, swan-like, let me sing and die;
A land of slaves shall ne’er be mine—
Dash down yon cup of Samian wine!


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