07 October 2009

Oh, the Byrony!

I never cease to be amazed by the way that people, when I tell them I'm a Byronist, think it's okay to then bash Byron. When I told my father I was going to work on Byron, he paused thoughtfully and then said in a musing tone, "It's curious: I've always thought Byron was the least interesting of the Romantics." Well, my family know that tact isn't my father's strong suit, so, okay. But when I was writing my job letter the jobs officer for my department told me I should be prepared "not to do well in the market, because you've written a single-author dissertation, and on an author who's, well, not really top tier." And tonight at a cocktail party some man who sought me out to meet me because he works on Greek Byzantine art and knew I worked on Byron, said to me, "Well, Byron's poetry is good - if you read it aloud."

Really? Really? Do I say to you, "Well, Byzantine art: it's Byzantine; it's art; what more can you say, honestly?" Do I say, "Ah, lovely to meet you. You work on physics? Oh, right, the science of falling stuff"? Do I?

I have spent my life, both interest and principle,
And deem not what I deemed: my soul invincible.

No more - no more - Oh! never more on me
The freshness of the heart can fall like dew,
Which out of all the lovely things we see
Extracts emotions beautiful and new;
Hived in our bosoms like the bag o' the bee.
Think'st thou the honey with those objects grew?
Alas! 'twas not in them, but in thy power
To double e'en the sweetness of a flower.

How does that sound when you just read it aloud, buddy? Something you could just whip up off the top of your head, is it?

The Assyrian came down like the wolf on the fold,
And his cohorts were gleaming in purple and gold;
And the sheen of their spears was like stars on the sea,
When the blue waves roll nightly on deep Galilee.

Like the leaves of the forest when summer is green,
That host with their banners at sunset were seen:
Like the leaves of the forest when autumn hath blown,
That host on the morrow lay withered and strown.

For the Angel of Death spread his wings on the blast,
And breathed in the face of the foe as he passed;
And the eyes of the sleepers waxed deadly and chill,
And their hearts but once heaved, and forever grew still!

And there lay the steed with his nostril all wide,
But through it there rolled not the breath of his pride;
And the foam of his gasping lay white on the turf,
And cold as the spray of the rock-beating surf.

And there lay the rider distorted and pale,
With the dew on his brown and the rust on his mail;
And the tents were all silent, the banners alone,
The lances unlifted, the trumpets unblown.

And the widows of Ashur are loud in their wail,
And the idols are broke in the temple of Baal;
And the might of the Gentile, unsmote by the sword,
Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!

There's some "not really top tier poetry" for you. What is it you do with Byzantine art, again?

No comments: