The question of love has been very much on my mind lately. It sometimes feels as if we’re wired to love, but not equipped to deal with the pains that seem to be a part of truly loving someone, and for the last month I’ve been quietly seeking my answers in the poetry of George Gordon, Lord Byron.
I think like most people, I first met Byron in my high school English Literature class. It was taught by this supremely elegant woman who seemed to have such command of every word, every nuance, and every theme. My love of literature and poetry were awakened with her. I fell in love with Chaucer (and in college proceeded to learn Middle English as a result), breezed through Shakespeare, sat horrified and riveted by Robert Browning, was mystified by Blake, and quite literally wept with joy at what Coleridge could do with simple words, all while under her spell. Then we got to Byron, and the spell was broken. He seemed trite, almost dismissive. How could he be placed among greats like Keats and Shelley, I asked? The answer wouldn’t come until much later.
That “later” came in college, where I took a course titled “Second Generation Romantic Literature.” I figured Byron would be the price to pay to get to fully immerse myself in Shelley and Keats for a semester. It turns out, however, that Byron was the prize. It was here that I began to see him in a different light. I began to see beyond my high school perception of Byron as the handsome but superficial womanizer, and began to appreciate the subtle complexities of both his life and his work. His poetry, I realized expressed a heartbreaking innocence juxtaposed against a near knavish manner, an almost brooding darkness set against a childlike playfulness, his heroic actions contrasted against his physical deformity. He was right when he said, “I am such a strange mélangé of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me.” But what truly engaged me, what began my love affair with Byron was his passion, and not just in the obvious sense. Yes, he clearly had a passion for women, but he had a passion for life, for words, and for feeling… for all that makes us human. It was with this new perspective on Byron that I reread the first poem of his that I had so hated in high school, “She Walks in Beauty,”
She walks in Beauty, like the night
Of cloudless climes and starry skies;
And all that’s best of dark and bright
Meet in her aspect and her eyes:
Thus mellowed to that tender light
Which Heaven to gaudy day denies.
One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impaired the nameless grace
Which waves in every raven tress,
Or softly lightens o’er her face;
Where thoughts serenely sweet express,
How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.
And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,
So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,
The smiles that win, the tints that glow,
But tell of days in goodness spent,
A mind at peace with all below,
A heart whose love is innocent!
What had once seemed trite now seemed tender, seductive, rhythmic. It made me long to be that woman described by someone so attentively and lovingly. The poem lost its “high school” simplicity and opened me up to what else Byron had to offer, such as this…
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!
I almost didn’t include the last two stanzas of this poem, “To Caroline,” because they invariably make me cry. Such longing, sadness, love, passion… the desire to just lose themselves in each other is palpable, and one cannot help but feel it with them. It makes one envious of that love shared, yet so afraid of enduring that kind of loss. What beautiful contrast, and what beautiful emotion.
Byron’s way of describing such intimate feeling, elicits from us an equally powerful reaction, whether we are complicit or not. His understanding of human nature, of what moves us, of what we fear, and of what we desire, cause his poetry to seem to speak directly to our hearts and souls. One of my favorite poems of his, “Solitude,” always seemed to highlight this understanding of who we are.
To sit on rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell,
To slowly trace the forest’s shady scene,
Where things that own not man’s dominion dwell,
And mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been;
To climb the trackless mountain all unseen,
With the wild flock that never needs a fold;
Alone o’er steeps and foaming falls to lean;
This is not solitude, ’tis but to hold
Converse with Nature’s charms, and view her stores unrolled.
But midst the crowd, the hurry, the shock of men,
To hear, to see, to feel and to possess,
And roam alone, the world’s tired denizen,
With none who bless us, none whom we can bless;
Minions of splendour shrinking from distress!
None that, with kindred consciousness endued,
If we were not, would seem to smile the less
Of all the flattered, followed, sought and sued;
This is to be alone; this, this is solitude!
Last, before I go on too long, there is one poem that always shined like a ray of hope. His “Stanzas to Augusta” (Augusta being his sister with whom he purportedly had an incestuous affair, this is Byron, after all), speaks to the power of love itself, to withstand adversity, to face all challenges, to give strength that seems impossible, and to pull the lovers through.
…Oh, blest be thine unbroken light!
That watched me as a seraph’s eye,
And stood between me and the night,
For ever shining sweetly nigh.
And when the cloud upon us came,
Which strove to blacken o’er thy ray -
Then purer spread its gentle flame,
And dashed the darkness all away.
The winds might rend, the skies might pour,
But there thou wert -and still wouldst be
Devoted in the stormiest hour
To shed thy weeping leaves o’er me.
…But thou and thine shall know no blight,
Whatever fate on me may fall;
For heaven in sunshine will requite
The kind -and thee the most of all.
Then let the ties of baffled love
Be broken -thine will never break;
Thy heart can feel -but will not move;
Thy soul, though soft, will never shake.
And these, when all was lost beside,
Were found, and still are fixed in thee;-
And bearing still a breast so tried,
Earth is no desert -e’en to me.
Still no answers to my questions about love, but one thing Byron does illuminate is the ability of love to transform us in ineffable ways. Ineffable to us, maybe… it takes a poet like Byron to put into words that which exists only in our hearts.