Friday, December 02, 2011

Byron and All That's Best of Dark and Bright

ASIDE from the first, third and fourth lines I am indifferent to the poem, but sometimes one feels inclined obligingly to trot out a classic:


George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824)
British Romantic-era poet.

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 mellow'd to that tender light
Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,
Had half impair'd 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!


THE poem was written in 1814, and alternately attributed to the pulchritudinous inspiration of Byron's cousin-by-marriage or (the version which I heard before consulting a certain online encyclopaedia) of his half-sister Augusta.

To me the poem lies oddly with the biographical details of its indicter, since Byron as the private individual is — either through the disservices of the society through which he passed, or by the succeeding morality of the Victorian Age, or through the boredom of the academics to whom the postmortem of his life has been assigned, or due to a nature which would be considered adventurous by the standards of any time — markedly characterized by his loose and disastrous relationships, most famously with Lady Caroline Lamb, Claire Clairmont, and his wife, and less famously with divers servants.

(Perhaps his upbringing meant that Byron had a confused notion of love, and mistook affection for physical attraction. Either way, in his poems reminiscing about Harrow, he writes
Ah! Sure some stronger impulse vibrates here,
Which whispers friendship will be doubly dear
To one, who thus for kindred hearts must roam,
And seek abroad, the love denied at home.)
AT ANY RATE, the term "Byronic hero" has of course come to mean someone who is brooding and troubled and a very romantic prospect, but not someone with whom one would want to interact regularly or much at all, in reality. (Byron himself was also famously attractive, though the example of a Byronic hero who comes to mind is Edward Rochester, who was supposed to be more rugged than picturesque, so it's not an inalienable attribute.)


THE poem reminds me of the paintings in which da Vinci depicts women: they are all haunted in a sense by a dark backdrop, and in his greatest paintings I think he endeavours to bring out the innate gentleness of Mary, the naive enthusiasm of young Cecilia Gallerani, etc., in a way to increase their outer beauty.

On the other hand, the insistence on "purity" and "innocence" is unprepossessing, since being inexperienced, vulnerable and naïve seems much more appealing to others than an asset, and it is only a little removed from the label of wellmeaning stupidity. If Byron did not define purity and innocence as naïveté, then the problem is that he does not give much indication as to what he meant instead.

There is a similar problem with the term 'platonic love.' It appears to refer to Plato's Symposium, which I've read and interpret to mean, rather, that Plato didn't like women and thought that relationships with men were less icky and more intellectually and emotionally rewarding, than that a completely asexual relationship is the apex of love. This might be attributed in turn to the unfashionableness of female education and female pursuits outside the home in ancient Greece, and to a surfeit of acidulous ladies in his circle, notably like Xanthippe.

Various articles on Wikipedia, "George Gordon Lord Byron: She Walks in Beauty" from Representative Poetry Online [Ian Lancashire, University of Toronto]

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