POETS Day! George Gordon, Lord Byron

Photo by Lord Byron in solitary isolation by David Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0 , via Wikimedia Commons

[This entry is cross posted at ordinary-times.com]

The wheel keeps on turning and turning and turning ‘round. Life’s disturbingly predictable if you let it continue unmolested. Shake things up. Break the expected routine. It’s POETS Day again (that “again” in no way indicates that POETS Day is included in the bourgeois and repetitive pattern of events alluded to in the metaphor of “the wheel” whose crushing lack of spontaneity are anathema to fun and apple pie just because weeks are cyclical and POETS Day arrives with weekly regularity) and that means it’s your time to be a disruptor. Piss Off Early, Tomorrow’s Saturday. Get out of that Hellespont you call a workplace before you drown. Your work is a vampire. It’s your weekend and you shouldn’t have to explain your motivation for leaving the job early to get a jump on the only time when the proper director (you) is on set. Dissemble, obfuscate, fudge the truth, and gleefully trespass the norms and delicate pieties that preserve our hopefully durable civilization. Nearly all means are justified by the urge to prematurely escape the bonds of employment and settle in at a friendly neighborhood joint for a happy hour priced beverage and a mid-major game, lay comfortably in the grass at a local park and people watch, or, God forbid, go for a light jog. Do what you will, but in homage to the mighty acronym may I suggest setting aside a moment for a little verse? It’s a particularly good way to pass time waiting on friends who may not run as roughshod over the delicate pieties and were not as successful as you were in engineering an early exit.


“He may have been mad, bad, and dangerous to know but Mary Shelley shut herself away for a weekend and wrote Frankenstein to avoid spending time with him. ‘I’m just going to go invent the whole genre of modern science fiction rather than have a conversation with that tedious jackass womanizer.’”
– My wife

That may not be the most factual accounting.

Mary Shelley, then Godwin, shut herself up in a room to write the beginings of Frankenstein because writing scary stories was the game she, her soon to be husband Percy, her step-sister Clair Clairmont, and John William Polidori played on vacation in Switzerland with the fifth of their party, George Gordon, Lord Byron. As far as I can tell they party got along well. Things went poorly later with Byron denying Clairmont, who was pregnant with his child at the time of the scary story game, visitation of their doomed daughter he was busy abandoning at a convent. Polidori’s contribution to the game was what became The Vampyre, the novel that birthed modern vampire fiction, starring Lord Ruthven, an undead clearly based on Byron. Read into that what you will.

He was not tedious. As a student at Cambridge Byron crossed swords with those in charge over the “no dogs allowed” rule. Noting that the rule said nothing about bears, he kept a pet bear in his quarters on campus. It’s easy to look at this as the act of a petty school-yard lawyer thumbing his nose at a literal minded HOA association because that’s what he’s doing. That said, he kept a bear for a pet, with all the dangers that would entail. When travelling he saw the Hellespont and knowing the story of Leander and Hero he dove in and swam the across the strait. Sympathetic to the cause of Greek independence, he not only spent a fortune repairing naval vessels and paying soldiers, he sailed to lead forces into battle. Illness took him before he saw any fighting, but the Greeks remember him fondly on Byron Day.

He had grand Romantic ideas. That’s not that big a deal. So do I, but I never had a pet bear, swam a major commercial waterway because I liked an ill-fated love story, or committed my life, fortune, and publicly sullied honor to the cause of independence as Byron did. The guy was willing to risk. He was impressive. But he was a jackass womanizer. Manizer too. That’s what publicly sullied his honor.

Everybody knew Byron. He published to some notice but then he put out the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. The printing sold out in three days. “I awoke one morning and found myself famous,” he wrote. His short term wife Anabella coined the phrase “Byromania” to describe the public adulation of her husband. The world had its first superstar, but English society and English law had their stance on homosexuality. Rumors of dalliances with men got people talking and then scorned women who were only too glad to air all manner of suspicions stoked the fire. Soon it was the gossip that not only was Byron a homosexual but that he carried on an affair with his step-sister by whom he fathered a child. Being a true poet, Byron read the mood of the country and Pissed Off Europe-ways To Safety. He remained immensely popular as a writer and a Romantic figure, but he was unsafe in England. He never returned.

He is rightfully considered one of the best poets in the English language. His epic poems are just that. The “love” poems that I’ve read are amazing works of art, but I think of them as something other. I have a book titled The Love Poems of Lord Byron, and for the most part they aren’t. There are funny misconceptions in the way the public views Shakespeare’s Romeo. He’s thought of as a great lover when he was more a doofus kid on a Rosaline rebound. I think Byron has a lot in common with Romeo. He’s thought of as a great lover too. He may have loved deeply. I can only go by what I’ve read and from that it looks more like he loved passion than people. Love is lasting. He would pursue, conquest, and then quickly get bored and move on. Most of the poems in The Love Poems of Lord Byron fall into one of two categories. There are poems of seduction or anticipation and there are poems of remembrance or breaking up. Run up to or ending. Today’s featured poem falls in with the latter.

“To Caroline” is one of two poems by Byron he named “To Caroline” so they are referred to often by the first line. Today’s featured “To Caroline” is the one that begins “Think’st thou I saw thy beauteous eyes.” Both are to Lady Caroline Lamb, a married woman Byron carried on with secretly and then scandalously openly with for a brief while before he ended things. She, credited with the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” epithet, didn’t take it well. There was wrist slashing, stalking, forged letters, disguised as a pageboy stalking, and angry poems written at each other. Lady Lamb eventually wrote Glenarvon, a novel in which a thinly veiled fictional Byron does not come off well. Through the first five stanzas “To Caroline” seems like it’s a ”It’s not Thee. It’s me.” poem, then in the final stanza Byron writes that maybe it would be a better idea if they just pretend they never met. Not nice, but intimate.

So, my wife was probably wrong about Mary Shelley avoiding Byron, right about her inventing the genre of modern science fiction, wrong about him being tedious, and right about him being a jackass womanizer. He was capable of cruelty and capriciousness. He was a great man, did great things, and left great works.

Enjoy the poem.

To Caroline

George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788 – 1824)

Think’st thou I saw thy beauteous eyes,
Suffus’d in tears, implore to stay;
And heard unmov’d thy plenteous sighs,
Which said far more than words can say?

Though keen the grief thy tears exprest,
When love and hope lay both o’erthrown;
Yet still, my girl, this bleeding breast
Throbb’d, with deep sorrow, as thine own.

But, when our cheeks with anguish glow’d,
When thy sweet lips were join’d to mine;
The tears that from my eyelids flow’d
Were lost in those which fell from thine.

Thou could’st not feel my burning cheek,
Thy gushing tears had quench’d its flame,
And, as thy tongue essay’d to speak,
In sighs alone it breath’d my name.

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,
In vain our fate in sighs deplore;
Remembrance only can remain,
But that, will make us weep the more.

Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!
Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,
Nor let thy mind past joys review,
Our only hope is, to forget!

Note about the title of this post: I felt duty bound to write “George Gordon, Lord Byron.” I shouldn’t have to have felt that way. A name should be stipulated if you write Lord Byron and don’t mean George Gordon. Nobody writes Lord Byron and means his dad John. George won, so barring some immortal act by a future Lord Byron we should all agree that without clarification the title refers to him.

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