Wanted: a poem celebrating life-long monogamy

“For a man to be a poet he must be in love, or miserable.”  – Lord Byron

I defy you, dear reader, to find one poem by a major poet — one poem — that celebrates lifelong monogamy. Hallmark anniversary cards do not count. Why is there such a yawning void when it comes poems addressing this subject? Perhaps because poets understand the transitory nature of love more fully than most. Poets celebrate love, not love’s longevity. Poetry will help you woo your woman, but after that… good luck.

Please understand, I support marriage, as I support modern civilization. That doesn’t mean it isn’t problematical for a whole host of reasons. And I’m not a complete cynic. When I see old couples dancing, it makes me believe. Couples can love each other, with mutual respect, with rewarding emotional initimacy and affection, for many years. But love — passion and giddiness — you’re not going to retain. The best you can hope for is a warm glow that flares up now and again on rare occasions — and that’s if you’re compatible and properly devoted.

But enough of what I think. Let’s hear what Lord Byron has to say on the topic. He slept with quite a number of married women, so he knows what he’s talking about. I give you two stanzas from Canto III, from his best work, Don Juan:

V.

‘Tis melancholy, and a fearful sign
Of human frailty, folly, also crime,
That Love and Marriage rarely can combine,
Although they both are born in the same clime;
Marriage from Love, like vinegar from wine —
A sad, sour, sober beverage — by Time
Is sharpened from its high celestial flavour
Down to a very homely household savour.

VIII.

There’s doubtless something in domestic doings
Which forms, in fact, true Love’s antithesis;
Romances paint at full length people’s wooings,
But only give a bust of marriages;
For no one cares for matrimonial cooings,
There’s nothing wrong in a connubial kiss:
Think you, if Laura had been Petrarch’s wife,
He would have written sonnets all his life?

connubial = of or relating to the married state : conjugal <connubial relations>

Coming soon… who is Petrarch?

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch

Tuscan poet and literary figure Petrarch (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Lord Byron in Spain – Critic of War

The following stanzas are from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As part of an ongoing project, I’m attempting to make the poem more accessible by adding definitions of archaic words, relevant background material taken from a number of sources, and some of my own commentary.

The story so far — Byron has entered Spain, and his verse urges the Spaniards to rise up and defend themselves. Like all men, he is not entirely immune from the siren call of war, but he clearly recognizes its obscene and pointless waste. These stanzas are savagely anti-war. According to a BBC discussion of Childe Harold, Byron was one of the first English poets to take such a stance. What I think is interesting is how he entices the reader to feel the rousing excitement of war, only to unmask its illusion. Men, duped by spurious notions of glory and honor, are reduced to food for crows and fertilizer for fields. They are the broken, cast off tools of tyrants.

This is Byron at his best!

XXXVII

Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine’s roar!
In every peal she calls— ‘Awake! arise!’
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia’s shore?

Chilvary, personified as a goddess, has traded in her lance, “thirsty” for the blood of men, for the cannon, the modern engine of war. Andalusia is the southernmost region of Spain, comprised of eight provinces.

Harold”s words echo those of Satan in Paradise Lost, Book 1. For nine days and nights, the rebel angels plummet from heaven, landing in a lake of fire. Defeated, and floating vanquished upon the waters, Satan rouses his troops from their slumber: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.”

XXXVIII.

Hark! heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?
Sounds not the clang of conflict on the heath?
Saw ye not whom the reeking sabre smote;
Nor saved your brethren ere they sank beneath
Tyrants and tyrants’ slaves?—the fires of death,
The bale-fires flash on high:—from rock to rock
Each volley tells that thousands cease to breathe:
Death rides upon the sulphury Siroc,
Red Battle stamps his foot, and nations feel the shock.

heath = a : a tract of wasteland b : an extensive area of rather level open uncultivated land usually with poor coarse soil, inferior drainage, and a surface rich in peat or peaty humus

the reeking sabre smote = a sabre or saber is a curved sword, most likely of a type favored by the muslim invaders of Spain. “Reeking” is an odd word choice. Reeking originally meant to emit smoke; perhaps the swords are steaming with hot blood, which of course also has a distinct odor. Smote is the past tense of smite.

bale-fire = an outdoor fire often used as a signal fire

Siroc or sirocco = a hot dust-laden wind from the Libyan deserts that blows on the northern Mediterranean coast

XXXIX.

Lo! where the Giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,
With death-shot glowing in his fiery hands,
And eye that scorcheth all it glares upon;
Restless it rolls, now fixed, and now anon
Flashing afar,—and at his iron feet
Destruction cowers, to mark what deeds are done;
For on this morn three potent nations meet,
To shed before his shrine the blood he deems most sweet.

The “Giant” is Red Battle, War, the “eye that scorcheth all it glares upon.”  The three nations are Spain, Britain and France. This stanza makes me think of the Lord of the Rings and restless eye of Sauron.

XL.

By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mixed embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share:
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can cumber their array.

As in all wars, Death / “The Grave” is the real winner.

havoc = wide and general destruction : devastation;  great confusion and disorder

cumber = encumber; array has a number of meanings, but here it an imposing group or body of soldiers.

Havoc, (destruction personified) eager and joyful, hardly weighs down these troops with its presence. (That’s how I translate that last line.) I’ll have to do some research on war-hounds…

XLI.

Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies.
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim, and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met—as if at home they could not die—
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilise the field that each pretends to gain.

orisons = prayers

The battle of Talavera began July 27, 1809, and lasted two days. Byron was not there at the time. Writing to his mother, he said, “You have heard of the battle near Madrid, and in England they would call it a victory—a pretty victory! Two hundred officers and five thousand men killed, all English, and the French in as great force as ever. I should have joined the army, but we have no time to lose before we get up the Mediterranean.”

XLII.

There shall they rot—Ambition’s honoured fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away
By myriads, when they dare to pave their way
With human hearts—to what?—a dream alone.
Can despots compass aught that hails their sway?
Or call with truth one span of earth their own,
Save that wherein at last they crumble bone by bone?

sophistry = subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation

myriad = a great number; in Greek it originally meant 10,000

XLIII.

O Albuera, glorious field of grief!
As o’er thy plain the Pilgrim pricked his steed,
Who could foresee thee, in a space so brief,
A scene where mingling foes should boast and bleed.
Peace to the perished! may the warrior’s meed
And tears of triumph their reward prolong!
Till others fall where other chieftains lead,
Thy name shall circle round the gaping throng,
And shine in worthless lays, the theme of transient song.

meed = earned reward or wage

Albuera was another scene of battle in the Peninsular War. The English defeated the French there in 1811.

XLIV.

Enough of Battle’s minions! let them play
Their game of lives, and barter breath for fame:
Fame that will scarce reanimate their clay,
Though thousands fall to deck some single name.
In sooth, ’twere sad to thwart their noble aim
Who strike, blest hirelings! for their country’s good,
And die, that living might have proved her shame;
Perished, perchance, in some domestic feud,
Or in a narrower sphere wild Rapine’s path pursued.

Byron “supports the troops” as we say in America, but he savagely mocks them as well. In truth, he says, it would be sad to prevent them — these blessed temp workers — from dying for their country. At home, they might have suffered from an ignoble death, like dying in bar fight, or they might have become robbers or thieves  (in other words, engaging in behavior that is considered criminal outside the context of war).

rapine = pillage, plunder

A great discussion about Lord Byron’s Life

Here is an informative podcast about Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: BBC In Our Time, January 6, 2011 Though I found the host’s frequent interruptions annoying, I’m sure I’ll revisit this program.

Here is a summary of nearly all the topics discussed with his guests:

  • Byron’s aristocratic background and his grandfather, an admiral named “Foul Weather Jack.”
    Engraving of Byron's father, Captain John

    Engraving of Byron’s father, Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, date unknown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • His father, “Mad Jack,” an army captain and drunken profligate. Jack seduced and married an aristocratic heiress named Amelia. After she died, he was in debt and on the run from creditors. He remarried “a rather plain plump Scottish girl named Catherine” for her money. Three years later, Mad Jack died (at 35) and she was bankrupt. (Catherine was Byron’s mother; Amelia was the mother of Byron’s half-sister Augusta, with whom he would have a scandalously incestuous relationship.)
  • Byron’s club foot.
  • Sexual abuse by his Calvinist nurse.
  • The rejection of one of his early works, Hours of Idleness
  • His retaliatory assault on poets and critics in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. “It was English Bards that brought him to real public prominence…” a guest said, and not Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, of which Byron famously said “I awoke to find myself famous.”
  • His capacity for hate / holding grudges
  • 1809 – Byron’s grand tour – speculation on why he left to England: “This remains a mystery to some degree… it may have been because of his homosexual tendencies, which he felt he could only indulge in the East…” along with a love of Greek culture, etc.
  • The meaning of “childe” and why he started writing the poem.
  • The influence of Edmund Spenser (the poem is written in Spenserian stanzas).
  • The innovative style of the poem: “There were lots and lots of travel poems in the period… but what’s unique about CHP is that it’s simultaneously a travelogue, a political poem… and a very personal poem with all sorts of veiled references to personal scandal, and that’s what’s new”
  • The similarities between — and the merging of — the fictional Harold and the real Byron.
  • The break up of his marriage
  • How Byron was the first to write about “The shame of war, the disgrace of war — this is something entirely new in English poetry.”
  • Byron’s descriptions of bull-fighting.
  • On Greece becoming a “sad relic of departed worth”
  • 1812 – Childe Harold first published by Murray
  • Byron was one the first celebrities, before “being famous” was commonplace
  • 1816 – Byron left Britain for good following the exposure of his affair with his half-sister, along with rumors of attempted sodomy with his wife, etc.
  • His dangerously liberal politics.
    Frontispiece to a c. 1825 edition of Childe Ha...

    Frontispiece to a c. 1825 edition of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • His description of the Battle of Waterloo (Canto III) and his feelings about Napoleon.
  • What exactly is a “Byronic hero”?
  • What Byron doesn’t like about Wordsworth: his isolation from humanity
  • His continued status as a political hero in Greece and elsewhere. “There was a cult of Byron in every European country, except for Portugal.” (They never forgave him for insulting their country.)
  • Byron’s influence on other artists, including Bram Stoker: “Every vampire you encounter is based on Lord Byron”

Lord Byron in Portugal – continued

The story so far: having escaped death at the hands of assassins, Lord Byron continues his sight-seeing tour of Portugal, describing the sights as seen by his fictional character Childe Harold.

XXII.

On sloping mounds, or in the vale beneath,
Are domes where whilom kings did make repair;
But now the wild flowers round them only breathe:
Yet ruined splendour still is lingering there.
And yonder towers the prince’s palace fair:
There thou, too, Vathek! England’s wealthiest son,
Once formed thy Paradise, as not aware
When wanton Wealth her mightiest deeds hath done,
Meek Peace voluptuous lures was ever wont to shun.

whilom = formerly. “England’s wealthiest son” is a reference to William Beckford, author of Vathek, considered a classic gothic novel. I have a nicely illustrated copy of it, and confess I have yet to read it, though it’s not lengthy.

English: The hall of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshi...

English: The hall of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A wealthy eccentric, the life of Beckford is worth mentioning. At five he received piano lessons from Mozart, who was nine years old at the time. His father, twice Lord Mayor of London, bequeathed him, his only son, a vast fortune derived from Jamaican sugar plantations powered by slave labor. Beckford blew most of his fortune on collecting art and on building Fonthill Abbey, a gigantic gothic construction with a central tower that ended up collapsing twice.

When his sexual involvement with a young boy was exposed (Beckford was 18 and the boy 10 when they first met), he chose self-exile, fleeing to the Continent with his wife.

Fonthill Abbey. Built 1795 - 1807 by James Wya...

Fonthill Abbey. Built 1795 – 1807 by James Wyatt for William Beckford, the author of the gothic fantasy novel Vathek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

XXIII.

Here didst thou dwell, here schemes of pleasure plan.
Beneath yon mountain’s ever beauteous brow;
But now, as if a thing unblest by man,
Thy fairy dwelling is as lone as thou!
Here giant weeds a passage scarce allow
To halls deserted, portals gaping wide;
Fresh lessons to the thinking bosom, how
Vain are the pleasaunces on earth supplied;
Swept into wrecks anon by Time’s ungentle tide.

Apparently, a pleasaunce, aside from meaning enjoyment, is also “the region of a garden with the sole purpose of giving pleasure to the senses, but not offering fruit or sustenance” (an obsolete definition from allwords.com). A pleasaunce, full of pretty but useless, fruitless plants, is a fine metaphor for empty pleasures. Take care, dear reader, lest you end up ruined with no more than a garden full of giant weeds!

Vain are the pleasaunces on earth supplied; Swept into wrecks anon by Time’s ungentle tide.

Lord Byron in Portugal

The Story so far… Childe Harold has fled his native land and the empty pleasures of his hall, because there’s nothing and no one to keep him at home. He is about to arrive in Portugal. (For earlier portions, see the Childe Harold Project)

XIV.

On, on the vessel flies, the land is gone,
And winds are rude in Biscay’s sleepless bay.
Four days are sped, but with the fifth, anon,
New shores descried make every bosom gay;
And Cintra’s mountain greets them on their way,
And Tagus dashing onward to the deep,
His fabled golden tribute bent to pay;
And soon on board the Lusian pilots leap,
And steer ‘twixt fertile shores where yet few rustics reap.

Bay of Biscay = see image

English: This is a map showing the location of...

Cintra = city northwest of Lisbon. Sintra seems to be the modern spelling.

Tagus = longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. (Tajo in Spanish, Tejo in Portuguese; Tagus is Latin.)

Lusian = Portuguese

XV.

Oh, Christ! it is a goodly sight to see
What Heaven hath done for this delicious land!
What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!
What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!
But man would mar them with an impious hand:
And when the Almighty lifts his fiercest scourge
‘Gainst those who most transgress his high command,
With treble vengeance will his hot shafts urge
Gaul’s locust host, and earth from fellest foemen purge.

“Gaul’s locust host” refers to the French. Apparently, Byron sees war with the French as a form of divine punishment on the Portuguese for their destruction of the landscape. Lacking specifics, I’ll just read on.

Fellest = According to Merriam-Webster, fell can mean: a : fierce, cruel, terrible; b : sinister, malevolent <a fell purpose>; c : very destructive : deadly <a fell disease>

XVI.

What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold!
Her image floating on that noble tide,
Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,
But now whereon a thousand keels did ride
Of mighty strength, since Albion was allied,
And to the Lusians did her aid afford
A nation swoll’n with ignorance and pride,
Who lick, yet loathe, the hand that waves the sword.
To save them from the wrath of Gaul’s unsparing lord.

Lisboa or Lisbon, is the capital of Portugal

“Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold” – this line, combined with those from Stanza XIV:  “And Tagus dashing onward to the deep, His fabled golden tribute bent to pay” seem to have a story behind them; I’m guessing false or exaggerated tales of gold.

England (Albion) came to aid the Portuguese (Lusians), with “a thousand” ships (is he being literal here? – that’s quite a fleet). Byron paints quite an unflattering image of the nation of Portugal.

Gaul’s unsparing lord = Napoleon.

XVII.

But whoso entereth within this town,
That, sheening far, celestial seems to be,
Disconsolate will wander up and down,
Mid many things unsightly to strange e’e;
For hut and palace show like filthily;
The dingy denizens are reared in dirt;
No personage of high or mean degree
Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt,
Though shent with Egypt’s plague, unkempt, unwashed, unhurt.

sheen = to be bright, show a sheen (to be bright or shining)

surtout =a man’s long, close-fitting overcoat. pronunciation

shent = destroyed / also “to put shame to” or reprove

XVIII.

Poor, paltry slaves! yet born midst noblest scenes—
Why, Nature, waste thy wonders on such men?
Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?

The scene is more dazzling than anything described by … earlier I thought Shakespeare, but W. Hiley, editor of an 1877 edition I found on Google Books, says Dante.

ken = another one of those nice old words, meaning the range of vision; sight or view; the range of perception, knowledge or understanding.

Elysium = the Greek version of paradise, a place often mentioned in old poetry.

XIX.

The horrid crags, by toppling convent crowned,
The cork-trees hoar that clothe the shaggy steep,
The mountain moss by scorching skies imbrowned,
The sunken glen, whose sunless shrubs must weep,
The tender azure of the unruffled deep,
The orange tints that gild the greenest bough,
The torrents that from cliff to valley leap,
The vine on high, the willow branch below,
Mixed in one mighty scene, with varied beauty glow.

The word “toppling” caught my e’e – it’s an interesting word choice. Perhaps the crags seem toppled or overthrown by the convent; it also conveys the feeling of resting “atop” the crags. Also, you get a nice assonance with “toppling” and “convent.” That’s my thought, anyway.

hoar = a word you see oft in Romantic poetry. Hoar, hoary  – anything that’s white or gray, or ancient can be described with this word. It’s also a synonym for frost / sometimes I’ve seen “hoar-frost.” It’s unfortunate that this fine old-fashioned word and “whore” are homophones.

Reading poetry aloud is essential for appreciating the repetition of certain sounds: “horrid”, “hoar,”   “scorching,” “torrents”; “sunken”  and “sunless” and “unruffled”; “glen” and “tender.”

azure = blue

XX.

Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s House of Woe;’
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punished been; and lo,
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.

Two things worth mentioning here – Byron’s translation error and Honorius.

Nossa Senora de Peña or “our Lady’s house of woe” should be translated as “our lady of the rock”  (rock is peña; pena is Portuguese for punishment). Byron addresses the error in his notes to Cantos I-II.

Our Lady of the Rock

Our Lady of the Rock

I looked up Honorius in Wikipedia; he lived in the Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra da Sintra (Convent of the Holy Cross of the Sintra Mountains), lived to be 100, and spent the last thirty years of his life living in a small hole, which still exists today. Wish I had an image of it! Robert Southey, a poet and contemporary of Byron’s wrote this:

Inscription for the Cell of Honorius, at the Cork Convent, near Cintra
Robert Southey (1774–1843)
HERE, caverned like a beast, Honorius passed,
In self-affliction, solitude, and prayer,
Long years of penance. He had rooted out
All human feelings from his heart, and fled
With fear and loathing from all human joys.
Not thus in making known his will divine
Hath Christ enjoined. To aid the fatherless,
Comfort the sick, and be the poor man’s friend,
And in the wounded heart pour gospel-balm,—
These are the injunctions of his holy law,
Which whoso keeps shall have a joy on earth,
Calm, constant, still increasing, preluding
The eternal bliss of heaven. Yet mock not thou,
Stranger, the anchorite’s mistaken zeal!
He painfully his painful duties kept,
Sincere, though erring. Stranger! do thou keep
Thy better and thine easier rule as well.

XXI.

And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path;
Yet deem not these devotion’s offering—
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath;
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Poured forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life!

So – not only are the Portuguese (of all social classes) dirty and dingy in appearance, but apparently the murder rate is out of control. Byron is a young tourist, already guilty of a translation error – perhaps not every cross denotes a murder.

Here is what he says in his notes to Cantos I-II:

“It is a well-known fact, that in the year 1809 the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen; but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend; had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have adorned a tale instead of telling one.”

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.