Aside from the obvious stress and disquietude of negative press, Byron’s writing benefited from his turmoils. Up until the year 1816, his literature was dark and melancholic, with shades of existential quandary, but 1816 brought about a notable turn. Specifically, Byron’s poem Darkness is expressive of new levels of melancholia. It is worth noting that this poem has been viewed as a symbolic representation of “ the Year Without a Summer,” but the following paragraphs will explore Byron’s inner darkness during self-imposed exile. Viewed through a biographical lens, Darkness contains textual evidence, which lends itself to symbolic portrayals of depression and loss. This line of interpretation is important not only for what it reveals about Byron, but because it exemplifies that sentiment and emotion in poetry do not have to be flowery and inherently feminine.
One of the first instances of symbolic expression pertains to the impetus for Byron’s flight into exile: “the pall of a past world; and then again with curses cast them down upon the dust” (Darkness, p. 246, 30-31). These lines take on biographical significance when read in conjunction with Geoff Payne’s Dark Imaginings: Ideology and Darkness in the Poetry of Lord Byron. This scholar states that “[Byron] was rumoured to have conducted an affair with his half-sister, sodomized his wife, carried on romantic liaisons with various married women, and to have indulged in sexual affairs with a number of young boys and girls” (Payne, 15). The lines of the poem, taken in concert with this segment of biography explains how his reputation acts like a shroud, or “pall” that haunts him, and brings about curses that are showered upon him.
Another line: “gorging himself in gloom: no love was left” (Darkness, p. 246, 41) which appears further along in the poem is indicative of one of Byron’s coping mechanisms, excessive binge-eating then fasting from food. This tendency is discussed in Terry Castle’s “Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know” thusly: “Ms Frosskurth [biographer] exhaustively records the drinking bouts and obsessive dissipation, the periods of quasi-bulimic physical grossness… After putting on weight to the point of self-disgust, Byron would then methodically starve himself” (Castle, 2). By connecting his line from Darkness with this personal detail, a veiled description of Byron’s coping mechanisms is apparent.
Toward the end of the poem, there are also striking symbols to femininity that are expressed not only in terms of departure and death, but also in relation to each other: “the waves were dead; the tides were in their grave, the moon, their mistress, had expired before” (Darkness, p. 245, 78). This quote is interesting because it addresses how the objects of Byron’s love, the moon and the ocean, are related to one another, which parallels his wife and newborn child. Moreover, these objects of his love are unattainable, and ultimately lost to him.
It is often said that readers should beware of interpretive analysis, because the author’s meaning is unknowable and consequently of little import. However, Byron’s separation from his wife and child, self-imposed exile, and lastly his writing of Darkness are so closely linked temporally, that avoiding this line of interpretation is misguided. Moreover, by expressing his sadness and grief in macabre, apocalyptic poetry, Byron dismantles the notions that emotional sentiments are exclusively feminine.
Castle, Terry. Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, (New York: New York Times, 1997).
Payne, Geoff. Dark Imaginings: Ideology and Darkness in th ePoetry of Lord Byron, (Oxford: Peter Lang AG, 2008).
Artwork: Paintings by Zdzislaw Beksinski