Saturday, July 12, 2008

Stand Back! That Poet Has a Bear!

Dear Everybody:

Today, we touch lightly upon George Gordon Noel Byron, best known as Lord Byron. Picture it: Young, rich (until he ran up debts, living beyond his means) handsome, and a lord! And he was a romantic poet. And a great one. Did he make out like a bandit with the ladies? Yes, he did, and with young men as well.

So he was, first of all, scandalous. There were rumors he fathered a child upon his half-sister. Second of all, renowned. After "Childe Harolde's Pilgrimage" came out, he wrote that he awoke one morning to discover himself famous. And third of all, a poet whose work is still read and quoted with respect and enjoyment today.

When you put all of these together, you have the epitome and figurehead of the Romantic poets. What is Romanticism? My single-volume encyclopedia says, "A movement in the arts variously defined as a return to nature, exaltation of emotion and the senses over the intellect, and revolt agaisnt 18th-century rationalism." Very true. To which I would add that it also had a dark streak to it, a brooding obsession with death and decay which today we characterize as "Byronic." His influence still lives on. Buffy the Vampire Slayer owes a lot to Byron, as does every Goth you know.

So I present you with not one of his greatest poems, but one of his most Byronic:

Lines Inscribed Upon A Cup Formed From A Skull
by Lord Byron

Start not -- nor deem my spirit fled:

In me behold the only skull

From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
I lived,
I loved, I quaffed like thee;

I died: let earth my bones resign:

Fill up -- thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.

Better to hold the sparkling grape

Than nurse the earthworm's slimy brood,

And circle in the goblet's shape

The drink of gods than reptile's food.

Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,

In aid of others' let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,

What nobler substitute than wine?

Quaff while thou canst; another race,

When thou and thine like me are sped,

May rescue thee from earth's embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.

Why not -- since through life's little day
Our heads such sad effects produce?

Redeemed from worms and wasting clay,

This chance is theirs to be of use.

Okay, to clear up difficulties of syntax and vocabulary: "Start not -- nor deem my spirit fled" means "Don't be afraid and don't think I'm dead." The "whatever flows" is a joke; words used to flow from the skull; now wine does. "Quaffed" means drank. "Let earth my bones resign" means let the earth give up my bones. (Or, rather, just this one.)

The poem is, really, just a dark joke. You think it's gross to have a drinking-cup made out of a skull? Far from it! What's gross is burying it in the ground and letting it be eaten by worms. So drink up! After you're dead, if you're lucky, maybe somebody will make a cup out of your skull.

Only far more wittily phrased than that, of course. It's easy to picture him delivering this rant with the skull in one hand and finishing it off with a deep draught of wine.

Did Byron really have a skull cup? It's hard to imagine him not. There are places they can be brought today. And the young Byron liked to offend people (the technical term for this is epater les bourgeoises -- "shock the middle class"). When he was at Trinity University, there was a rule that students could not keep a dog. So he kept a bear.

All best,


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