Byron is one of the most prolific and talented poets in the Western canon. No true student of poetry could complete her studies without knowing the beauty of his words. While Byron wrote many long narrative poems such as Don Juan and Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, my favorite of his works are his short love poems. These five lyric poems depict longing, loss, existential feelings, and a romance with nature.
Byron’s personal life was interlaced with his literary work. In most of his lyric poems, Byron used the people he knew as muses. The memorable lines, “She walks in beauty, like the night / Of cloudless climes and starry skies” were inspired by observing his cousin’s wife, Anne Wilmot, at a party. While he describes her lovely face and compares it to the polarities in nature, it is mostly her goodness and personality that makes her so beautiful.
With such an adventurous and controversial life, it is not surprising that most of Lord Byron’s poetry was autobiographical. His actions were considered so taboo by Western society that he had to escape England and sail to Belgium to distance himself from his failed marriage, his many affairs, and rumors of his bisexuality. According to Louis Crompton’s Byron and Greek Love, people who were gay in the 19th century kept their sexual orientation a secret because England had death penalty laws for anyone who wasn’t straight.
“To Thyrza” reflects the heartbreak Byron endured when learning about the passing of a young friend of his: John Edleston. Because of homophobia, Byron couldn’t even mourn his lost love publicly. He had to mask the gender of John by calling him a female name: “Thyrza.”
There be none of Beauty’s daughters
With a magic like thee;
And like music on the waters
Is thy sweet voice to me:
When, as if its sound were causing
The charmed ocean’s pausing,
The waves lie still and gleaming,
And the lull’d winds seem dreaming:
And the midnight moon is weaving
Her bright chain o’er the deep;
Whose breast is gently heaving,
As an infant’s asleep:
So the spirit bows before thee,
To listen and adore thee;
With a full but soft emotion,
Like the swell of Summer’s ocean.
Listen to the lull of his words that rock back and forth like waves swelling and crashing on the shore. Byron accomplishes the sweet and sleepy melody of the poem by using a rhyme scheme and formal meter. He also personifies nature and uses alliteration to create a romantic mood.
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 wears out 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.
This poem was included in an 1817 letter to his friend, Thomas Moore: available in the Norton Critical Edition. In the letter, Byron writes about being tired of wandering around in high society: “yet I find the sword wearing out the scabbard though I have but just turned the corner of twenty-nine.”
While this is not a love poem addressed to a beloved, this is definitely a romantic poem about life and death. Byron addresses aging and the inevitable realization that he’s not going to live forever. Even though the poem’s subject is morbid, Byron still manages to soften the poem by romanticizing his feelings. He crafts the romance by using nature imagery, metaphors, and masculine end rhymes.
One of my favorite poems of Byron’s is the confessional, “Love and Death.” This is a special poem because Byron wrote it in the throes of what he believed was his death. He contracted a grave fever while sailing to Missolonghi for the Greek War of Independence (1821–32). Every word in this poem is autobiographical: That’s why Byron is so passionate, vulnerable, and emotional.
While at sea, Byron’s vessel encountered trouble as it was chased by Turkish ships. But love—even unrequited love—kept him alive, and in that sense, he embodies his prophetic words: “The great object of life is Sensation—to feel that we exist—even though in pain.” Byron survived this traumatic experience and wrote “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year” on Jan. 22, 1824, but he died three months later from another fever. Both poems were inspired by Lukas Chalandratsanos, his Greek page.
You don’t need to have such a tragic and challenging life in order to be a good writer, but you can learn from Byron by using your personal experiences to channel poetry. That is the true lesson of the Romantics: honest and uncensored expression of feelings. And authentic emotions can serve as a catalyst for beautiful poetry.