I just spent a week getting reacquainted with Byron—George Gordon, Lord Byron–and the magic wasn’t happening. When I was in college, he was my favorite of all the romantic poets because he was easiest to understand and he was funny. This mid-life trek through the Norton anthology is highlighting how much I have changed: my tastes, my understanding of life, my values. I’m reading through more layers than when I was 20. Still the poets, they seem to understand everything. Here’s Byron:
And all that Memory loves the most
Was once our only Hope to be,
And all that Hope adored and lost
Hath melted into Memory.
Alas it is delusion all:
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall
Nor dare we think on what we are. (“Stanzas For Music”)
Byron’s masterpiece is Don Juan, a book length poem in five cantos that begins with the great line “I want a hero” and proceeds to give us a satirical one. Incidentally it’s pronounced “Don Jooan.” I didn’t believe it when Mr. Tosswill told us that in the Romantics class. I thought he had misunderstood somewhere along the way and had been mis-pronouncing it all his life.
I still find Byron funny but my favorite is one of his serious poems. It’s not actually in the Norton Anthology: “The Prisoner of Chillon.” There’s a section of it I memorized once when I was coming out of depression. This past week I found the complete poem in an old Rinehart edition of Byron and read it one afternoon in my garden while the cats snoozed and mock orange blossoms fell on me and I thought how wonderful it is to be nearly 60.
Chillon is a castle on Lake Geneva that was used as a prison for a short time in the 16th century. That was enough to set Bryon off. In the poem three brothers are imprisoned, the eldest being the narrator. He describes how they are each shackled to a column and unable to see one another. One by one the younger brothers die and are buried where they were shackled. For years, the narrator is alone in the dungeon next to the graves of his two brothers. The depression that Byron describes is familiar to me:
. . . vacancy absorbing space,
And fixedness without a place:
There were no stars, no earth, no time
No check, no change, no good, no crime,
But silence, and a stirless breath
Which neither was of life nor death:
A sea of stagnant idleness,
Blind, boundless, mute, and motionless.
His journey out of depression is also familiar to me. It begins with some small effort from the prisoner himself: the willingness to be open to goodness:
A light broke in upon my brain,–
It was the carol of a bird. . .
. . .then by dull degrees came back
My senses to their wonted track. . .
Then the prisoner is in a position to accept help from others: One of the jailers takes pity on him, doesn’t renew his chains when they rust open, thus allowing him a bit of freedom.
What Byron describes next is, I think, brilliant, and it had a profound effect on me. The “Prisoner of Chillon” does not end with a rainbow. What the prisoner (and I) had to confront was how much the long imprisonment/depression had defined us. In my case, I found myself so identified with being depressed that depression became a glorified state. Look at how strong I am, how much pain I can take. Happiness is for sissies.
In the “Prisoner of Chillon” I found a companion who understood that intermediary state of not being quite sure I wanted to step into a foreign world even when that world offered the experience of Joy. Here is the end of the poem and the part I memorized:
It might be months, or years or days,
I kept no count, I took no note,
I had no hope my eyes to raise,
And clear them of their dreary mote:
At last men came to set me free:
I ask’d not why and reck’d not where:
It was at length the same to me,
Fetter’d or fetterless to be,
I learn’d to love despair.
And thus when they appear’d at last
And all my bonds aside were cast,
These heavy walls to me had grown
A hermitage—and all my own!
And half I felt as they were come
To tear me from a second home:
With spiders I had friendship made,
And watch’d them in their sullen trade,
Had seen the mice by moonlight play,
And why should I feel less than they?
We were all inmates of one place,
And I, the monarch of each race,
Had power to kill—yet, strange to tell!
In quiet we had learn’d to dwell:
My very chains and I grew friends,
So much a long communion tends
To make us what we are:–even I
Regain’d my freedom with a sigh.