’Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it has ceased to move:
Yet, though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;
The worm—the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
So begins one of Byron’s last poems. Is it an ode to the Greek youth he loved? A general meditation on mortality? Choose your theory. The date, at least, we can estimate with a fair degree of accuracy. In the 1825 Narrative of Lord Byron’s Last Journey to Greece, his friend, Count Gamba, related of the occasion:
This morning Lord Byron came from his bedroom into the apartment where Colonel Stanhope and some friends were assembled, and said with a smile—“You were complaining, the other day, that I never write any poetry now:—this is my birthday, and I have just finished something, which, I think, is better than what I usually write.” He then produced these noble and affecting verses, which were afterwards found written in his journals, with only the following introduction: “Jan. 22; on this day I complete my 36th year.”
The notorious poet would die in April of the same year, 1824, in Missolonghi. The prophetic nature of the poem may have been because of a new awareness of death; Byron’s friend Shelley had died in 1822, his daughter Allegra a year later. After years of hedonism, Byron was facing the realities of violence. Then, too, the baron lived hard, consuming alcohol with legendary intemperance. Although he would ultimately die of a fever, he’s believed to have suffered a small stroke shortly beforehand.
Yesterday, a friend and I were discussing how inured we—the global “we”—are to shock. Is there anything that could shock you today? We wondered. Has there been anything? More often than not revelations provoke a sense of sadness, or maybe disappointment, but even then it doesn’t feel wholly unexpected. On those few occasions I’ve felt a momentary pang, I chided myself for my naïveté. (The end of my own innocence was marked by the charges against my beloved Frugal Gourmet. I’d always dreamed of going on his children’s Christmas specials.) Can you imagine enjoying shock?
To this day, people speak with relish of Byron’s scandals, his sexual liaisons and illegitimate children, his beauty, and his debauchery. I’ve heard him described as one of the first modern celebrities—at least, in terms of calculated image control. Of course, Byron was a nobleman, and so well-placed to scandalize polite society. But at the end of the day, it truly was his verse that caused such a sensation. Even in our jaded times, a rich man being accused of incest and driving a society matron to a suicide attempt would make Page Six. But say that guy were a poet—would his work then start selling? Would it be read with scandalized glee and prompt a thousand admirers and imitators? That, at least, might be genuinely shocking.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review and the Daily’s correspondent.