Poem of the week: Love and Death by Lord Byron

Love and Death

1.

I watched thee when the foe was at our side,
Ready to strike at him – or thee and me,
Were safety hopeless – rather than divide
Aught with one loved save love and liberty.

2.

I watched thee on the breakers, when the rock
Received our prow, and all was storm and fear,
And bade thee cling to me through every shock;
This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier.

3.

I watched thee when the fever glazed thine eyes,
Yielding my couch and stretched me on the ground
When overworn with watching, ne’er to rise
From thence if thou an early grave hadst found.

4.

The earthquake came, and rocked the quivering wall,
And men and nature reeled as if with wine.
Whom did I seek around the tottering hall?
For thee. Whose safety first provide for? Thine.

5.

And when convulsive throes denied my breath
The faintest utterance to my fading thought,
To thee – to thee – e’en in the gasp of death
My spirit turned, Oh! oftener than it ought.

6.

Thus much and more; and yet thou lov’st me not,
And never wilt! Love dwells not in our will.
Nor can I blame thee, though it be my lot
To strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still.

Thought to be Byron’s last poem, posthumously published and awarded its rather strainingly obvious title, Love and Death reflects the poet’s participation in the Greek war of independence. His months in Missalonghi, where he died in the spring of 1824, were relentlessly harsh: como the Poetry Foundation site puts it, “all occasions – military, political, físico, climatic, and amorous – seemed to conspire against him”. In the poem, the heroic actions are shadowed by a bigger defeat. Byron is in love with his page-boy, thought to be Loukas Chalandritsanos, and the love is unrequited.

The physical dangers of the events described seem to be intensified by the lover’s gaze. “I watched thee” are the first words of the first three stanzas, the verb bearing a weight of significance. “I watched thee” implies both protective and soldierly actions – “on watch”, “watching over”, “watching out for”. It also suggests constant attention and desire.

In the first stanza, the poet makes a particularly dramatic claim: he would be ready to kill himself and his beloved if the “foe” couldn’t be overcome, and capture or separation seemed a likely alternative. His own sword will ensure that the pair die together rather than live without “love or liberty”.

Shipwrecked, the poet offers a more fatherly kind of physical support, but the imagined outcome still involves the possibility of the younger man’s death: “This arm would be thy bark, or breast thy bier.” While Byron always takes a discernible pleasure in the rescue fantasy, the scenes themselves are presented vividly, as lived experience and not merely idealised heroic adventure.

The need for persuasion emerges urgently in the fourth stanza. It begins with the memorable image of “men and nature [reeling] as if with wine” in the aftermath of the earthquake. The rhetorical questions and answers have a rather desperate jolt to them: “Whom did I seek around the tottering hall? / For thee. Whose safety first provide for? Thine.”

In the fifth stanza it’s as if Byron were foreseeing the circumstances of his own death. The scene is presented with heightened emotion and a glint of sad humour. Even in extremis, when the dying man, unable to speak, might be repenting his misdemeanours, his “fading thought” persistently turns to the earthly beloved.

One of Byron’s special gifts was always to write as both Romantic and realist. That ability doesn’t desert him here. The last stanza is painfully effective, a renunciation and refusal to apportion blame, with an extra twist of anguish created by the internal rhyme in the final declaration “… to strongly, wrongly, vainly love thee still”. How close the heroic parts of the narrative may be to events in Byron’s life is a question for the biographers. But no one can doubt the force of the lyric as a love poem, as stoical, finalmente, in facing rejection as in confronting physical danger and death.

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