seven Byronic songs'
1. Lord B in Motion 2. Half a Scot by Birth 3. Marathon
4.Setting Sail from Genoa 5. (Lord Byron's) Freedom song
6.Epitaph 7.So we'll go no more a roving
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SEVEN BYRONIC SONGS and LORD BYRON AND THE GREEK WAR
LORD B. IN MOTION (Lyrics by John Webster)
Through the valley of the Arno
In the late October sun;
Lord Byron was a-travelling
While ahead his fame did run …
‘Lock up your daughters
Or keep them chaperoned;
He’s mad, he’s bad
He’s dangerous to know’
‘Don’t even look at him darling’
The mothers would say;
But their daughters sneaked a glimpse
Through the window anyway
At the head of five coachloads
Nine horses followed on the road
With an Egyptian falcon and a monkey;
There were five fine cackling geese
He hadn’t had the heart to eat
And a bulldog and a mastiff
His accountant was coiled like a snake
On his money chest;
His four poster bed was adorned
With his family crest
Which read from Norman times ‘Trust Byron’
(Not all his ladies would agree).
Byron: ‘I have simplified my politics into an utter detestation of all governments’
‘Gin and water is the source of all my inspiration’
‘God will not always be a Tory’
He thought that the poet laureate
Was a turncoat and a fool;
He satirised him in his verse
And challenged him to a duel.
When Byron’s poem Childe Harold was published in March 1812 it triggered a response that can be compared to Beatlemania. ‘I awoke and found myself famous’ Byron recorded, also remembering many years later that ‘the number of anonymous love letters and portraits I received, and all from English ladies, would have been enough to fill a large volume’.
Byron rode the wave of his fame in Britain (also developing an international reputation) until 1816, when London high society turned against him, scandalised by the implosion of his marriage and suspicions that he had conducted an incestuous affair with his half sister Augusta.
After his exile public interest in him remained strong, and ‘Lord B. in motion’ tries to convey the extent of his celebrity. The ‘don’t even look at him’ line were addressed by an English mother to her daughter in Florence as Byron was passing through on his way to Pisa and gives an idea of how he was regarded by polite society.
The final verse refers to his ongoing literary warfare with Robert Southey the poet laureate (part of the no-holds-barred literary battle of the time). Southey, who had supported liberal causes in his youth, had dubbed Shelley and Byron’s impending collaboration on a journal in Pisa ‘The Satanic School’, and had called for legal action against them.
HALF A SCOT BY BIRTH
Adapted from Don Juan, Canto X, Stanzas 18 and 19
I am half a Scot by birth
And bred a whole one …
‘Auld Lang Syne’ brings Scotland, one and all
Scotch plaids, Scotch snoods, the blue hills and clear streams
The Dee, the Don, Balgounie brig’s black wall,
All my boy feelings, all my gentler dreams
Floating past me …
You may remember, in a youthful fit
I railed at Scots – to show my wrath and wit
And yet, I ‘scotched, not killed’ the Scotsman in my blood -
I love the land of ‘mountain and of flood’.
I am half a Scot by birth …
Auld Lang Syne brings Scotland, one and all
This childishness of mine
Comes back with ‘Auld Lang Syne’ …
After Shelley’s death in the summer of 1822 Byron took up his poem Don Juan again, and in these lines, written in his study in Pisa at the Palazzo Lanfranchi, overlooking the river Arno, he thinks back to his childhood in Aberdeen.
To visit the Dee valley (and the Linn of Dee near Braemar he visited as a child) is to understand something about Byron, the grandeur, beauty and wildness of the scenery he encountered in boyhood seeming to have permeated his spirit in some way. (Songwriter's note: Apologies, Balgounie is mis-pronounced in the song, should be Balgownie rather than 'Balgoonie' )
The lines about his ‘youthful fit’ refer to his poem ‘English Bards and Scotch Reviewers’, a savage attack on both the Scottish and English literary worlds. The Edinburgh Review, the liberal journal which he would have expected to be supportive, had trashed his first published poem ‘Hours of Idleness’. His first reaction had been complete despair but then, as he recalled later, ‘I drank three bottles of wine and sat down to make a reply’.
So ‘Half a Scot by birth’ amounts to public act of reconciliation and a farewell to the Scotland he would never see again.
Sources: Don Juan Canto III, Stanza 86 Childe Harold Canto III, Stanza 98 Entry in notebook 19th June 1823
The mountains look on Marathon
And Marathon looks on the sea;
And musing there an hour alone
I dreamed that Greece might still be free
Yet freedom ! yet thy banner torn but flying
Streams like the thunderstorm against the wind;
Streams like the thunderstorm against the wind.
The dead have been awakened – shall I sleep ?
The world’s at war with tyrants – shall I crouch ?
The harvest’s ripe - and shall I pause to reap ?
I slumber not – the thorn is in my couch ....
Each day a trumpet soundeth
Its echo in my heart ....
The mountains look on Marathon
‘I would do anything for the land which gave Europe its science and its art’ said Byron in Pisa, as well as telling Shelley’s cousin Tom Medwin ‘I mean to return to Greece, and shall in all probability die there’.
In Genoa, where he moved after leaving Pisa in the autumn of 1822, he assisted two German volunteers returning from Greece, and this rekindled his interest in supporting the insurrection of Greek nationalists, who had risen to try to end fopur centuries of rule by the Ottoman empire. When two emissaries from the London Greek Committee visited him and asked for help his mind was made up. The lines from his notebook ‘The dead have been awakened ...’ were written a month before departure, and convey his mental preparation for what lay ahead.
SETTING SAIL FROM GENOA (Lyrics by John Webster)
Setting sail from Genoa
With a chest of gold and medicines,
To join the Grecian fight for liberty;
Sailing slowly southwards
Past the volcanic islands
And out beyond the heel of Italy.
It was as if ten long years
Were lifted from his shoulders,
He felt like he was young again;
And Byron then remembered
The Springtime of his manhood
And the women who had loved him then ....
After twenty days on board
They saw the mountains of Morea,
Rising wreathed in cloud above the sea;
And Byron came on deck then
To catch sight of the country
Where he thought he could well meet his destiny ....
Everyone was watching
On the isle of Cephalonia
When Byron's boat moored at Argostoli,
Through telescopes and glasses
They viewed the noble poet
Whose life had now become legendary.
And so Byron left Genoa in July 1823, planning to sail to Cephalonia, then under a British mandate, to wait for firm information on the situation in Greece. He had chartered The Hercules, ‘a tub built on the lines of a baby’s cradle’ according to Trelawny, and captained by Captain Scott, a Cockney who ‘abused Byron most obstreperously for throwing himself away on these villains’ - the Suliotes who swarmed onto the ship when Byron arrived in Cephalonia – ‘when there were so many honest men suffering at home’. Byron and Trelawny teased the Captain during the journey by getting into his prize scarlet waistcoat, taking one arm each (he was so large they both fitted) and jumping into the sea with it.
When they arrived on Cephalonia Trelawny, impatient with what he saw as Byron’s vacillation, went on ahead to the mainland, where – completely misreading the situation - he immediately joined up with the treacherous warlord Odysseus and was nearly assassinated for his pains. Byron however, waited for hard news from the mainland – demonstrating the blend of scepticism and idealism that underlay his expedition.
(LORD BYRON’S) FREEDOM SONG
(Adapted from lyrics in a letter dated November 5th 1820; music Dave Eastoe)
When there is no freedom to fight for at home
Let one combat for that of ones neighbours;
And think of the glory of Greece and of Rome ….
And get knocked on the head for ones labours !
Finally in January 1824 Byron arrived in the coastal town of Missolonghi to throw his weight behind one part of the Greek forces, the ‘Provisional government of western Greece’. There he began to try to unite the different factions in the town and the country, to shore up Missolonghi’s defences and raise a loan from banks in London for the Greek cause. (Download Missolonghi narrative here). But on 24th April he succumbed to cerebral malaria.
‘The news of his death came upon London like an earthquake’ a journalist wrote. ‘No one could remember the death of a poet having such an effect’. Another comment was:‘I felt as if I had lost a friend – he was the noblest spirit in Europe’.
The piece of Byronic wit in (Lord Byron’s) Freedom Song was written in Ravenna when he was providing assistance to Italian nationalists who wanted to rid Italy of rule by Austro-Hungarian Empire. It demonstrates how he would build up a noble or heroic theme only to undercut or subvert it. He did this to the great lines ‘The mountains look on Marathon...’ from Don Juan and also when he wrote his tribute to the Ukranian patriot Mazeppa. Both admirers, critics, and those who met him routinely complained that he would never stick to a point of view, but when it came to the point in Greece, he would stand by the cause to the bitter end.
Adapted from Childe Harold Canto IV Stanza 137
But I have lived, and have not lived in vain
My mind may lose its force, my blood its fire;
But there is that within me which shall tire
Torture and time, and breathe when I expire
Like the remembered tone of a mute lyre.
In 1818 Byron had published the last Canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgimage, in which he included a reflection on what his legacy could amount to. In an age when belief in an afterlife is on the wane these lyrics point to an immortality of the spirit which certainly a great poet like Byron can aspire to. What survives of the rest of us is perhaps less measurable, but at best is seen perhaps in a diffused but none the less real contribution to humanity, liberty, and society, that goes on to build up the human story – for all we know, the only self-aware form of life in the universe.
7. So We’ll Go No More a Roving
(Written in Venice 1819)
So, we'll go no more a roving,
So late into the night;
Though the heart be still as loving
And the moon be still as bright.
For the sword outwears its sheath
And the soul outwears the breast;
And the heart must pause to breathe
And love itself have rest
Though the night was made for loving
And the day returns too soon
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.
One of Byron’s most famous lyrics, whose jumping off point was a contemporary Scottish folk song, is pressed into service (see narrative ? of LB & GW) as a farewell song for the younger Romantics: Keats, Shelley and now Byron who had all died young.
They had all died freethinkers, unreconciled to orthodox formulations of God; in a sense today’s society, which also finds simple all-explanatory formulas problematic, has only just caught up with them.
Romantic poetry has been called ‘a fusion of love, philosophy, exact observation and spiritual vision’ (Grevel Lindrop) which doesn’t seek to express a coherent system of thought but reflects a ‘painfully fragmented existence’ (Richard Cronin). Which is a good cue for a last quotation from Byron: ‘When a man talks of system’, he once wrote, ‘his case is hopeless”.
John Webster: vocals; Dave Eastoe: Guitars, keyboards, bouzouki; Ruth Murray: Vocals, flute; Steve Homes: flamenco guitar; Keith Parker: Guest vocals
Dialogue 1: In Genoa Byron converses with the visiting Lady Blessington on love, fame and his imminent departure to Greece. Listen to the dialogue on YouTube here.
Ruth Murray: Voice of Lady Blessington; John Webster: Voice of Lord Byron
Lady Blessington has been described as ‘shrewd and sympathetic’ and her book ‘Conversations with Lord Byron’, from which these dialogues are largely reconstructed, is generally held to be both fair and accurate. Born in humble circumstances in Ireland and sold by her father to a farmer, she had been rescued by an English officer and then had married Lord Blessington. She came to preside over a literary salon in St James’s Square, London, so had witnessed Byron’s years of fame and ultimate fall from grace in London society. A year younger than Byron, she was ‘entrancingly beautiful’ and was dubbed ‘most gorgeous’ after a portrait of her caused a sensation amongst her peers.
Dialogue 2: Byron considers the issue of religion in Cephalonia
Andrew Stubbings: Voice of Dr James Kennedy
Dr James Kennedy, an Edinburgh doctor with ‘gentle manners and a kind heart’, was the physician to the British garrison on Cephalonia. A Methodist, he sought to defend literalist Christianity against Enlightenment ideas – his meetings on Cephalonia, some of which Byron attended, were for this purpose. (Byron quipped that the respectable attendance at these meetings owed something to the beauty of his young wife). He died in Jamaica in 1827 fighting an outbreak of yellow fever, and his widow subsequently oversaw the publication of his book ‘Conversations on the Subject of Religion with Lord Byron’, from which these dialogues, again, are largely reconstructed.
BYRON The Flawed Angel, by Phyllis Grosskurth. Perceptive modern biography.
The Last Attachment, by Iris Origo. The classic description of Byron and Teresa’s relationship.
The Last Journey, by Harold Nicolson. An in-depth account of his journey to Greece.
That Greece Might Still be Free, by William St. Clair. An account of the involvement of Philhellenes, including Byron, in the Greek War of Independence. Lord Byron: Detached Thoughts
Don Juan, The Curse of Minerva
Edward Trelawny: Records of Shelley, Byron and the Author
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