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& Other Music For Upstart George’s

It’s time we talked about George Gordon, Lord Byron.

A mammoth of poetry. The Right Honorable. Descended from avaricious sailors. Rich enough to feed all his varied sexual and comestible appetites. An indomitable Romantic. Hero of Greece. Hero of schoolchildren. Caught a fever in Greece (haven’t we all) but then died of it.

Reading his “Prisoner of Chillon” (1816) recently was a delight. A quick, simple poem, it’s a page turner, something to read to the kids before tucking them in bed. It reads almost like a nursery rhyme:

There are seven pillars of Gothic mould,
In Chillon’s dungeons deep and old,
There are seven columns, massy and grey,
Dim with a dull imprison’d ray

And in each pillar there is a ring,
And in each ring there is a chain;
That iron is a cankering thing,
For in these limbs its teeth remain,
With marks that will not wear away,
Till I have done with this new day

…a nursery rhyme about a guy in a dungeon who hears but cannot see the drawn-out deaths of his two younger brothers, horribly expending what’s left of their lives not five feet from him, after losing his entire family to religious and political persecution, who then in a deep depression loses his senses for a time:

What next befell me then and there
I know not well—I never knew—
First came the loss of light, and air,
And then of darkness too:
I had no thought, no feeling—none—
Among the stones I stood a stone,
And was, scarce conscious what I wist,
As shrubless crags within the mist;
For all was blank, and bleak, and grey;
It was not night—it was not day;
It was not even the dungeon-light,
So hateful to my heavy sight,
But 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!

…and generally despairs for himself and the entire world until his spiritual release–via a bird–and his actual release–via the Bernese government–which by him is unanticipated and undesired. Francoise Bonivard, on whom the poem is based, spent only six years in the dungeon (a long time if you ask him), though reading Byron one feels it more like sixty, or at the very least sixteen. Here is the actual dungeon:

…which is pretty nice if you ask me, prettier than most people’s houses, I don’t know what this guy was so despairing about.

And all this amongst some great gorgeous lyric:

And truly might it be distress’d
To see such bird in such a nest;
For he was beautiful as day—
(When day was beautiful to me
As to young eagles, being free)—
A polar day, which will not see
A sunset till its summer’s gone,
Its sleepless summer of long light,
The snow-clad offspring of the sun

A shortened life, tragically, though intensely productive. It’s easy to say that anyone who has that kind of money doesn’t really have to make any hard choices concerning whether or not to pursue his art…and I will say it. I said it. But, Byron nevertheless chose to do so replete with gusto, unwilling to waste a prodigious talent, or compromise his ideals, and, instead, shouting them.

No crime but silence.


From → Readings

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