Thursday, April 22, 2010

Byron's Death

Last Monday was the anniversary of Byron’s death. Here is one of his last poems. Although not one of his better poems it expresses well his sentiment.

On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year

‘Tis time the heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!

My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of love are gone;
The worm, the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!

The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some volcanic isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze--
A funeral pile.

The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of love, I cannot share,
But wear the chain.

But 'tis not thus--and 'tis not here--
Such thoughts should shake my soul nor now,
Where glory decks the hero's bier,
Or binds his brow.

The sword, the banner, and the field,
Glory and Greece, around me see!
The Spartan, borne upon his shield,
Was not more free.

Awake! (not Greece--she is awake!)
Awake, my spirit! Think through whom
Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake,
And then strike home!

Tread those reviving passions down,
Unworthy manhood!--unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.

If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live?
The land of honourable death
Is here:--up to the field, and give
Away thy breath!

Seek out--less often sought than found--
A soldier's grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy ground,
And take thy rest.

Lord George Gordon Byron

Years ago, high in the hills behind the ancient ruins of Epidaurus I watched olive harvesting, a process that had hardly changed down the ages. The taxi driver whom we’d hired for the day had taken us to his parent’s village. He spoke English, they didn’t. It came up that I wrote poetry. He translated this to them and their eyes lit up. ‘Byron’ was the common word all were using. He is the greatest English poet they all agreed. I was shown a well-thumbed collection of his poems in Greek.

In Greece he is deeply embedded as a legend. He died while fighting for their independence as they fought to overthrow their Turkish rulers. Despite his desire for a glorious death on the battlefield he succumbed to a fever before he ever engaged the Turks. The death was not perceived as failure, rather it lent lustre as well as credibility to a cause.

This poem foreshadows much of the bellicose jingoistic nationalistic British poetry of the 19th century and on to Rupert Brooke’s early First World War Verse. “If I should die’ think only this of me:/ That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ That is forever England.

The Byronic hero became a sort of role model for British manhood, despite the fact that Westminster Abbey would not accept his remains and did not put up a memorial to him till after the Second World War. Brooke also died in Greece from a fever. His poet peers changed their minds about glory and Sparta et al in the carnage of the trenches that characterised that conflict. Unfair to blame Byron – but his legend added flavouring to the idea.

Charlotte Bronte also died years later on the same day. Her Mr Rochester personifies the Byronic hero.

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