Lord Byron’s Poem “Darkness” 1788 -1824

 

Lord ByronThe poet George Gordon, known as Lord Byron (1788-1824), was one of the Romantic movement's most important and versatile writers. Byron was born in London on January 22, 1788. His father died three years later. His childhood was dominated by a sternly Calvinist mother, a nurse who sexually abused and beat him, and painful medical treatment for his club foot. He began his schooling in Aberdeen, Scotland. He succeeded to the title and estates of his granduncle William, 5th Baron Byron, upon William's death in 1798. Lord Byron adopted the name Noel as his third given name in 1822, in order to receive an inheritance from his mother-in-law. In compensation for his deformity he prided himself on his physical prowess, particularly in swimming. While at Harrow School and Trinity College, Cambridge he gained a reputation for atheism, radicalism and loose-living, keeping a bear as a pet for a time. In 1809 Byron took his seat in the House of Lords. Also in 1809 he began two years of travel in Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, involving himself in self-consciously romantic adventures. He swam across the Hellespont like Leander in the Greek legend, and dressed in Albanian costume. Lionized in society by his new found literary fame, and pursued by various women (including Lady Caroline Lamb), in 1815 Byron decided to marry Anna Isabella Milbanke, a naive and inexperienced young woman. After giving birth to a daughter, Augusta Ada, Byron's only legitimate child, Lady Byron left her husband, despairing of ever reforming him. In 1816, Byron agreed to legal separation from his wife. Rumors about his incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh, which produced a daughter, Medora, and doubts about his sanity led to his being ostracized by society. Deeply embittered, Byron left England in 1816 and never returned. Byron then met up with Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (the future Mary Shelley) in Switzerland. Along with Mary's half-sister Claire Clairmont, and Byron's doctor, Polidori, they spent the summer together entertaining each other with horrific stories from their imaginations. These stories were the seed of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. A child was produced from his relationship with Claire Clairmont around this time, but Allegra, as she was named, died in infancy. He next travelled to Italy where, after a period of sexual promiscuity with all kinds of women, he eventually fell in love with Countess Teresa Guiccioli, the 19-year-old wife of an elderly Italian nobleman. After following her to Pisa in 1821, he finally became uncomfortable in the role of tolerated lover. When his good friend Shelley died by drowning in 1822, he decided to throw himself into the cause of Greek independence from the Turks. He not only recruited a regiment for the cause of Greek independence but contributed large sums of money to it. The Greeks made him commander in chief of their forces in January 1824. In Greece he also had a disappointed passion for a youth, Loukas, and began to feel his age, expressed poignantly in the lyric "On this Day I complete my Thirty-Sixth Year". He contracted malaria, was bled several times by his doctors, and died at Missolonghi on April 19, 1824. 1

 

1. Taken from Victorian Poetry at Anglik.net at http://www.anglik.net/byron.htm


 

“I had a dream, which was not all a dream.The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars Did wander darkling in the eternal space, Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;Morn came and went--and came, and brought no day, And men forgot their passions in the dread Of this their desolation; and all hearts Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light: And they did live by watchfires--and the thrones,The palaces of crowned kings--the huts,The habitations of all things which dwell, Were burnt for beacons; cities were consumed, And men were gathered round their blazing homes To look once more into each other's face; Happy were those who dwelt within the eye Of the volcanos, and their mountain-torch: A fearful hope was all the world contain'd; Forests were set on fire--but hour by hour They fell and faded--and the crackling trunks Extinguish'd with a crash--and all was black.

 

The brows of men by the despairing light Wore an unearthly aspect, as by fits The flashes fell upon them; some lay down And hid their eyes and wept; and some did rest Their chins upon their clenched hands, and smiled; And others hurried to and fro, and fed Their funeral piles with fuel, and looked up With mad disquietude on the dull sky, The pall of a past world; and then again With curses cast them down upon the dust, And gnash'd their teeth and howl'd: the wild birds shriek'd, And, terrified, did flutter on the ground, And flap their useless wings; the wildest brutes Came tame and tremulous; and vipers crawl'd And twined themselves among the multitude, Hissing, but stingless--they were slain for food. And War, which for a moment was no more, Did glut himself again;--a meal was bought With blood, and each sate sullenly apart Gorging himself in gloom: no love was left; All earth was but one thought--and that was death, Immediate and inglorious; and the pang Of famine fed upon all entrails--men Died, and their bones were tombless as their flesh; The meagre by the meagre were devoured, Even dogs assail'd their masters, all save one, And he was faithful to a corse, and kept The birds and beasts and famish'd men at bay, Till hunger clung them, or the dropping dead Lured their lank jaws; himself sought out no food, But with a piteous and perpetual moan, And a quick desolate cry, licking the hand Which answered not with a caress--he died.

 

The crowd was famish'd by degrees; but two Of an enormous city did survive, And they were enemies: they met beside The dying embers of an altar-place Where had been heap'd a mass of holy things For an unholy usage; they raked up, And shivering scraped with their cold skeleton hands The feeble ashes, and their feeble breath Blew for a little life, and made a flame Which was a mockery; then they lifted up Their eyes as it grew lighter, and beheld Each other's aspects--saw, and shriek'd, and died-- Even of their mutual hideousness they died, Unknowing who he was upon whose brow Famine had written Fiend.

 

The world was void, The populous and the powerful--was a lump, Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless-- A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay. The rivers, lakes, and ocean all stood still, And nothing stirred within their silent depths; Ships sailorless lay rotting on the sea, And their masts fell down piecemeal: as they dropp'd They slept on the abyss without a surge-- The waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, The moon their mistress had expir'd before; The winds were withered in the stagnant air, And the clouds perish'd; Darkness had no need Of aid from them--She was the Universe.” 2

 

2. Taken from Futureverse website. No longer online. (hard copy available upon request)