Saturday, 23 January 2010

Byron - Wolf of Time


Browsing Britannica's web portal on Friday, I discovered it was Byron's birthday on 22 January. Alfred has been with us, since a snatch of poetry in school; then with a clearer understanding in college in 'Childe Harold' and 'Elegy on Newstead Abbey' (where his mother died); leading on to weighty tomes of his complete works.

Reading his poetry and listening to Romantic music at the same time was a penchant of mine, not wholly appreciated by my hostel mates who had rooms near mine. I used to play Schumann's 'Manfred Overture' in the middle of the night and read from Byron's epic poem by the same name. I also used to gleefully announce the event to dubious friends over dinner in the mess.

Byron was 'mad, bad, and dangerous to know.' He is said to have slept with every woman of his day except two. His sister - because he shouldn't, and the Queen - because he couldn't.

The press loves an iconoclast. Byron's littered loves made for many pages of puerile prose. The more he wrote the more he was unloved by his own. He later left England never to return, and died in Greece.

Reviled in his day Byron continues to stand as a colossus in Romantic poetry. I doubt if he was actually medically insane, as Roy Porter seems to suggest of English poet John Clare. But if one is moved by a page of his poetry, is history unjust to censure his life?

The Destruction of Sennacherib (1815)

by Lord Byron (1788-1824)

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue wave rolls nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when Summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when Autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and for ever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brow, and the rust on his mail:
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpet unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

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