“To know another man well, especially if he be a noted and illustrious character, is a great thing not to be despised."
The whole world has novelly been besieged by COVID-19. Many, disparagingly labeled 'positive cases’, are forced to go through a period of self-quarantine, which, in the beginning, was thought of as somewhat fashionable. COVID-19 has, like Thanos, who damned the world, cursed the human race. Little did anyone know of the omnipotent Thanos back then and now of the omnipresent Corona.
Under the vivid title, Life Under Lockdown, scholars from the University of Cambridge have recently reviewed the ravages of past pandemics. They’ve looked at Cambridge alumni’s experiences of lockdown, quarantine, and isolation in a time without modern medicine.
Cambridge student, Lord Byron [1788-1824], a romantic poet, Nietzsche's superman, and Bronte sisters' (Byronic) hero,was, in 1811, forced under quarantine at a facility in Malta after returning from a Cholera-hit Greece. In his poem, Farewell to Malta, he satirically verbalised his fugitive grief.
'Adieu, thou damned’st quarantine,
That gave me fever, and the spleen!’
He was infuriated by the possibility of spending forty days in lockdown, so much so that he angrily bade farewell to Malta. The poem, if read in the Indian context with some modifications, would make you laugh and ease your i-so-lation.
Lord Byron, I beg your pardon but let me substitute the sound 'stage' with the malicious 'godi media' and break the perfect metre. Of the next line, you, at liberty, seek your pleasure.
'Adieu, that media which makes us yawn, Sirs,
Adieu, his Excellency's dancers!'
The dramatic life of Lord Byron has invariably inspired succeeding generations and continues to do so. The influential literary expression 'Byronic hero' was born out of his controversial life and fearless works. Of this Byronic hero, Countess G writes, '...a school called Romantic was in progress of formation. That school wanted a type by which to mould its heroes, as a planet requires the sun to give light.' Such was the sun that ignited the Romantic Movement.
He was magnetic, rebellious, and cynical yet affectionate. The Brontes, notably in the characters of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, and Mr. Rochester in Jane Eyre, exhibit these qualities of a Byronic hero.
It is particularly exciting to note that Byron was very fond of animals. His Epitaph to a Dog recollects Boatswain as '...all the virtues of Man without his Vices...' is popular and too humane. The dog, Boatswain, who died of rabies, was personally nursed by him. Humans, on the other hand, he was swift to criticise - 'while man, vain insect!’
Out of anger for rules forbidding pet dogs at Trinity, he, a rebellious student, kept a tamed bear. It so happened that there was no mention of bears in the college statutes. Trinity authorities were in complete shock but had no legal basis for complaining.
In an explicit letter to Elizabeth Pigot, he referred to this unusual incident that happened in 1807. He boastfully wrote, 'I have got a new friend, the finest in the world, a tame bear. When I brought him here, they asked me what I meant to do with him, and my reply was, “he should sit for a fellowship.''’ To the poor millennials, especially university walas, it might sound a bit hyperbolic, but it literally happened.
Byron, in his relatively short lifetime, had undertaken several voyages but had spent most of his life in Italy. The lady, Countess G. as he fondly referred to her, who was inspired by his way and was unconditionally in love with his company, wrote a lengthy book, in two parts, entitled My Recollection of Lord Byron and those of Eyewitnesses of his Life.
He disliked Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, and the Editor of Edinburgh Review but he was very fond of Shelley and Keats. It was with Shelly that he spent time in Italy.
When his Hours of Idleness earned scathing criticism in the prestigious Edinburgh Review, Byron, annoyed and with little thought, attacked his adversaries in his satirical poem English Bards and Scotch Reviewers.
'Shall gentle Coleridge pass unnoticed here,
To turgid ode and tumid stanza dear?'
For the way he speaks of Coleridge and criticizes his work, one ought to take a minute. Though the satire English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, an energetic piece, earned him instant fame, in a letter to Sir Walter Scott, he regretted his attitude towards the English bards. He then voluntarily suppressed the satirical poem.
Byron's The Vision of Judgement is a parody of Southey's A Vision of Judgement in which Byron exclusively attacked Southey, the poet laureate. The multiple-choice questions pertaining to these books often create confusion among students of literature, especially those who prepare for NET/SET. Ironically, there is often a question which questions whether it is 'A’ or ‘The' Vision of Judgement, and whose.
His epistles to this day attract a considerable number of people. His letters to his mother were sometimes addressed as ‘Dear Mother’ and sometimes as ‘My Dear Madam.’ Of the relationship, some biographers have shown conflict of ties. Showing Mrs. Byron in a bad light, some say, was never justified. In a letter that he wrote to his mother in 1811, probably before the quarantine, he said, 'I am convinced, however, that men do more harm to themselves than ever the devil could do to them.'
There are many poems of his that I admire but The Dream, a resume of Byron's emotional life, has always delighted me. The younger boy of The Dream has stamped an indelible impression on my memory. The Dream, composed in 1816 is based on his unhappy and youthful love-affair with Mary Chaworth who was much older to him. He uniquely detailed the difference of age as:
‘And both were young- yet not alike in youth
As the sweet moon on the horizon's verge,
The maid was on the eve of Womanhood;
The boy had fewer summers, but his heart
Had far outgrown his years, and to his eye
There was but one beloved face on earth’
Byron beautifully illuminated the idea of a dream as 'a wide realm of wild reality.' He additionally poured life into the dream. Symbolizing the dream with human sense and needs, he succinctly wrote,
'And dreams in their development have breath,
And tears, and tortures, and the touch of joy;'
The dream leaves 'a weight upon our waking thoughts' and ultimately 'a portion of ourselves as of our time.' The dream is 'creations of the mind' and can 'outlive all flesh.' It also curdles a long life into an hour.
The poetic speaker narrates his past affair but in an impersonal tone. The poetic speaker sees, in a dream, two beings in hues of youth standing upon a hill. The poem vividly creates floating images full of emotions of a boy and a woman but which ends unhappily in madness and misery. Sleep, which may not be needed for a pipe dreamer, has its own world.
I admit that some of you may like his other short poems, such as She Walks in Beauty composed on 12 June 1814. I faintly remember a friend of mine telling me at a university canteen that this poem was also transcreated in Marathi as Sundara Manamdhye Bharali. My search, however, found it to be untrue. My friend, an uncirculated poet himself, who offered me a cup of coffee at the canteen, could not produce any reference when asked, while sipping his own black coffee. Now and then he recites the elegant Marathi poem. Ram Joshi (1758-1812), who composed Sundara Manamdhye Bharali, must have written the poem before 1812. Nay, often we misunderstand things!
Some might argue in favour of lengthy Childe Harold or Don Juan. It is true that Childe Harold and Don Juan brought all the fame. Byron once wrote, 'he awoke one morning and found himself famous.’ These poems carved the Byronic style and personality in literature and politics.
Byron referred to the Greek War of Independence in his last poem On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Six Year which gives us an idea about the man, the Byronic hero of the Romantic Movement, who at the end of his life gave it all for the war. In the war-devastated Greek, he adopted a little Turkish Muslim girl who was in serious danger and whose parents were already killed.
As the recklessly imposed countrywide Lockdown continues to greatly cripple the economy and hardly contain the Coronavirus, unlike Lord Byron’s exile, most of us are at home toiling, reading, eating, yawning, and sleeping. I must extend other implied activities to your wild imagination. Like him, some of us do curse, of course, not simply the quarantine but the extended lockdown and a new kind of imposed isolation.
Let me unlock your locked mind. In the most critical times of Corona, the media, the dancers of his Excellency, must not communalise the virus (as green or red) but speak truth to the power. The government, on the other hand, must understand that the lockdown, quarantine, and isolation are not only in vain but in pain too.
Adieu, thou damned quarantine!
Satish Gore teaches English Literature as a guest faculty at Nowrosjee Wadia College, Pune. He is currently translating R Raj Rao's campus novel entitled 'Madam, Give Me My Sex' into Marathi.
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