Byron – Occasional Pieces (1807-8)

Byron’s Hours of Idleness covers 1802-7, so far as I can tell, and is one of the most difficult books to read because it’s just so poor, not that it’s his fault, he was only learning the ropes, but it’s precisely what you’d expect someone in his position to write. Occasional Pieces of 1807 are no better than that, and perhaps worse, including a poem to a tree, a poem to a son (he never had a son), and a poem written “upon finding a fan” and that’s all I have to say about that.

Occasional Pieces of 1808 show what I think is the period when his work becomes beautiful, and begins to be fearless. This was always Gigi’s favorite poem when we studied him together:

When we two parted
In silence and tears,
Half broken-hearted
To sever for years,
Pale grew thy cheek and cold, 5
Colder thy kiss;
Truly that hour foretold
Sorrow to this.
The dew of the morning
Sunk chill on my brow— 10
It felt like the warning
Of what I feel now.
Thy vows are all broken,
And light is thy fame:
I hear thy name spoken, 15
And share in its shame.
They name thee before me,
A knell to mine ear;
A shudder comes o’er me—
Why wert thou so dear? 20
They know not I knew thee,
Who knew thee too well:
Long, long shall I rue thee,
Too deeply to tell.
In secret we met— 25
In silence I grieve,
That thy heart could forget,
Thy spirit deceive.
If I should meet thee
After long years, 30
How should I greet thee?
With silence and tears.

It’s not as concise as some of his other poems of the time, but it feels more so because of its pulse, indeed, it’s the pulse that makes easy to absorb whereas his older verse didn’t have quite the same aesthetic mastery over meter:

“Oh, Anne, your offences to me have been grievous:
I thought from my wrath no atonement could save you:
But woman is made to command and deceive us–
I look’d in your face, and I almost forgave you.”
(To Anne. 1807)

Precise, but stilted. One of the first mistakes of writing in form is to believe that the rules are there to contain one’s verse, when I believe the form is there to set one free. this makes me old-fashioned. But, I think the difference between these two poems is clear–there’s a confidence in “When We Two Partedthat I do not find in Anne, if only in the loose interpretation of the pulse: Byron has his way with the pulse, he knows as long as it keeps beating he is free, while even at times it has the same meter as “Anne“, where each line begins and ends feminine, between feet, one giving birth to the next, in “Partedhe abandons precision for the movement of breath. We can feel the punctuation in our breath rather than in some stylized fabrication. How is it to be read?

“When we two parted, in sil-ence and tears…” forces the whole thing to read well, but read like one needs a pint of beer in one hand and the other balled into a fist. But that isn’t the mood the words set at all. I’ve always taken the emphasis as: “When we two parted…” and taken the language and punctuation naturally, as if there were no line breaks at all. And I believe that is how it is meant to be read, because it can be read that way. “To Anne” cannot be read like that, the punctuation breaks every line off forcefully, despite the feminine endings, exhausting because it’s so unnatural. When we two parted in silence and tears, half broken-hearted to sever for years, pale grew thy cheek…and cold; colder thy kisstruly that hour foretold sorrow to this. No matter how you break it apart, it works, it’s has an undeniable utility as shown by the form, but also a beauty that raises it to what we can finally call art.

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