Byron on BBC

Byron (2003) 2 hrs, 27 min.

If you’re not familiar with Lord Byron, this TV movie is a good introduction.

Jonny Lee Miller, who played “Sick Boy” in Trainspotting, is well cast. His features, whatever they may lack in physical likeness to Byron, are well-suited for expressing Byron’s wittiness, world-weariness, and arrogance. He sneers well.

My best friend pointed out that the first YouTube video begins as a light-hearted comedy only to shift into a drama / soap-opera in subsequent installments. Perhaps this is intentional, reflecting the transition from the sun-drenched fun of anything-goes Greece back to the colder and less tolerant atmosphere of London.

Notes:

  • Byron’s memoirs were indeed burned after his death. This New York Times article describes the event (skip to the last three paragraphs).
  • Byron refers to “Sounion, the sacred promontory of Athens” which his friend Hobhouse takes an interest in. According to legend, it was the height from which Aegeus, in despair over the assumed death of his son Theseus, leapt to his death. Returning from having slain the Minotaur in Crete, Theseus forgot to hoist a white sail in place of a black one, an agreed upon signal to indicate his survival. The Aegean Sea is thus named after his father, an early king of Athens.
  • Byron did indeed swim across the Hellespont, to reenact a feat from the Greek myth of Hero and Leander. (Leander, in love with Hero, would nightly swim across the narrow strait to be with her; he lived in Abydos and she lived in a tower in Sestos, on the northern shore.)
  • Byron’s sexuality defies easy categorization, but he preferred women. I give credit to the producers of this movie for not glossing over his bisexual tendencies.

Lord Byron, Stanza by Stanza, Canto 1, 7-13

Please note – I’m moving this Childe Harold project to its own page.

VII.

The Childe departed from his father’s hall;
It was a vast and venerable pile;
So old, it seemed only not to fall,
Yet strength was pillared in each massy aisle.
Monastic dome! condemned to uses vile!
Where superstition once had made her den,
Now Paphian girls were known to sing and smile;
And monks might deem their time was come agen,
If ancient tales say true, nor wrong these holy men.

Pile = a large building or group of buildings.

The town of Paphos is on the island of Cyprus, known for its recent banking troubles. The ancient city, now referred to as Old Paphos, is where Aphrodite was reputedly born from the sea foam, and housed a famous temple in her honor. Phapian girls are either merely wanton, or are prostitutes. I’m not sure which meaning applies here.

Anyway, Harold has converted his Dad’s place, a former monastery, into a swinging bachelor pad. I’m not sure what ancient tales are referred to in the last two lines.

VIII.

Yet ofttimes in his maddest mirthful mood,
Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold’s brow,
As if the memory of some deadly feud
Or disappointed passion lurked below:
But this none knew, nor haply cared to know;
For his was not that open, artless soul
That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow;
Nor sought he friend to counsel or condole,
Whate’er this grief mote be, which he could not control.

haply = by chance, luck, or accident (think happenstance)

IX.

And none did love him: though to hall and bower
He gathered revellers from far and near,
He knew them flatterers of the festal hour;
The heartless parasites of present cheer.
Yea, none did love him—not his lemans dear—
But pomp and power alone are woman’s care,
And where these are light Eros finds a feere;
Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare,
And Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair.

Leman = sweetheart, lover; esp. mistress

feere = consort or mate

“Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare, and Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair.” – Great quote!

(Seraphs are a type of angel.)

X.

Childe Harold had a mother—not forgot,
Though parting from that mother he did shun;
A sister whom he loved, but saw her not
Before his weary pilgrimage begun:
If friends he had, he bade adieu to none.
Yet deem not thence his breast a breast of steel;
Ye, who have known what ’tis to dote upon
A few dear objects, will in sadness feel
Such partings break the heart they fondly hope to heal.

Harold is a thinly disguised fictional version of Byron. Him and his mother didn’t get along all that well, and he did have a half-sister whom he loved (a little too much).

XI.

His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,
The laughing dames in whom he did delight,
Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,
Might shake the saintship of an anchorite,
And long had fed his youthful appetite;
His goblets brimmed with every costly wine,
And all that mote to luxury invite,
Without a sigh he left to cross the brine,
And traverse Paynim shores, and pass earth’s central line.

Paynim = is an old word for “pagan”

XII.

The sails were filled, and fair the light winds blew
As glad to waft him from his native home;
And fast the white rocks faded from his view,
And soon were lost in circumambient foam;
And then, it may be, of his wish to roam
Repented he, but in his bosom slept
The silent thought, nor from his lips did come
One word of wail, whilst others sate and wept,
And to the reckless gales unmanly moaning kept.

circumambient = encompassing, being on all sides

This stanza seems a bit over the top. The crew is weeping and moaning in a most unmanly matter, with the exception of our hero…

XIII.

But when the sun was sinking in the sea,
He seized his harp, which he at times could string,
And strike, albeit with untaught melody,
When deemed he no strange ear was listening:
And now his fingers o’er it he did fling,
And tuned his farewell in the dim twilight,
While flew the vessel on her snowy wing,
And fleeting shores receded from his sight,
Thus to the elements he poured his last ‘Good Night.’

Up next: Harold sings goodnight to his native land…

Lord Byron – Stanza by Stanza – Childe Harold, Canto 1

Lord Byron’s Childe Harold is not a readily accessible work for the modern reader. For my own benefit, if not yours, I want to break it down canto by canto, stanza by stanza. I’m reading the big fat red Oxford edition.

For now, I will spare you the details of Byron’s fascinating life and dive right into this project. After each stanza, I’ll make some comments that I hope will be brief and relevant. Honestly, you may want to skip this advanced delving for now; I’ll have some more digestible posts about Byron in the near future if this is the first you’ve heard of him.

CANTO 1

I.

Oh, thou, in Hellas deemed of heavenly birth,
Muse, formed or fabled at the minstrel’s will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I’ve wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sighed o’er Delphi’s long-deserted shrine
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale—this lowly lay of mine.

Byron is too affectedly modest to directly appeal to the muses for help. He doesn’t want to be associated with embarrassingly bad, lyre-strumming poets. Instead he merely wanders by their “vaunted rill” and sighs “o’er” Dephi’s long-deserted shrine. (Delphi rhymes with sigh.)

Vaunted = widely praised or boasted about

Rill= a very small brook

“O’er” = over. (Poets do this a lot – a practice called elision)

Mount Helicon is located in Hellas (Greece) and is considered the home of the muses. Hesiod (early Greek poet) names nine of them, representing the various arts. On Helicon is a fountain named Hippocrene (Hip-po-cré-ne), reputedly created by a stamp from the hoof of Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology.

What confuses me is Byron’s mention of Delphi, a different location. What “feeble fountain” and “sacred hill” is being referred to, if not Helicon? Byron’s notes for his readers make it clear that he went to Delphi, but the muses’ homebase is Helicon. What the Hellas?

Mote = an archaic word, meaning may or might.

Lay = 1. a simple narrative poem: ballad; 2. or melody, song (“Lay” is another oft-encountered word in poetry)

II.

Whilome in Albion’s isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue’s ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

Whilome = formerly (“Whil-” in Whilome rhymes with isle)

Albion’s isle = Great Britain

ne=never

in sooth = in truth

wight = a living being, creature

wassailer = one that carouses: reveler

III.

Childe Harold was he hight:—but whence his name
And lineage long, it suits me not to say;
Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame,
And had been glorious in another day:
But one sad losel soils a name for aye,
However mighty in the olden time;
Nor all that heralds rake from coffined clay,
Nor florid prose, nor honeyed lines of rhyme,
Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.

Hight = named.

losel = a worthless person (first syllable sounds like “prose”)

IV.

Childe Harold basked him in the noontide sun,
Disporting there like any other fly,
Nor deemed before his little day was done
One blast might chill him into misery.
But long ere scarce a third of his passed by,
Worse than adversity the Childe befell;
He felt the fulness of satiety:
Then loathed he in his native land to dwell,
Which seemed to him more lone than eremite’s sad cell.

Eremite = hermit.

From Encyclopedia Brittanica: hermit, also called Eremite, one who retires from society, primarily for religious reasons, and lives in solitude. In Christianity the word (from Greek erēmitēs, “living in the desert”) is used interchangeably with anchorite, although the two were originally distinguished on the basis of location: an anchorite selected a cell attached to a church or near a populous centre, while a hermit retired to the wilderness.

V.

For he through Sin’s long labyrinth had run,
Nor made atonement when he did amiss,
Had sighed to many, though he loved but one,
And that loved one, alas, could ne’er be his.
Ah, happy she! to ‘scape from him whose kiss
Had been pollution unto aught so chaste;
Who soon had left her charms for vulgar bliss,
And spoiled her goodly lands to gild his waste,
Nor calm domestic peace had ever deigned to taste.

Anytime you see “aught” just think “anything”

VI.

And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart,
And from his fellow bacchanals would flee;
‘Tis said, at times the sullen tear would start,
But pride congealed the drop within his e’e:
Apart he stalked in joyless reverie,
And from his native land resolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.

e’e = eye

e’en = even

And so, the story so far – Childe Harold, Byronic hero, is off to Portugal, his first stop in a bit of restless wandering.