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Byron's Last Poem Author(s): Frederick L. Jones Source: Studies in Philology, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Jul., 1934), pp.

487-489 Published by: University of North Carolina Press Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/4172248 Accessed: 11/08/2010 00:59
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L. JONES BY FREDERICK Though "On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year" is in most respects a genuine representation of the poet's conception of his premature age, burnt-out affections, and general abandonment by all that he loved most, Byron's usual "acting" is easily recognized in it. But I am not aware that Byron's " doubleacting " and obligation to Shakespeare in this last poem have been pointed out. There is " double-acting " in that the author is playing the part of the usual Byronic hero and at the same time combining this with the part of the deserted and defiant Macbeth. That "My days are in the yellow leaf'" is derived from Macbeth's "my way of life Is fall'n into the sere and yellow leaf," is common knowledge. But the similiarity between Byron's and Macbeth's situation and between the thought of the " Thirty-Sixth Year" and of the "sere and yellow leaf " lines has gone unnoticed. Byron represents himself as old in experience, as lonely, and as forsaken by those whom he has loved; he reminds himself, though, that this is not the time and place to lament his personal griefs, for he is engaged in a struggle for the liberty of an oppressed people. He will therefore forget himself and, not wishing to live longer, find for himself a heroic death on the battle field. Macbeth, on the threshold of old age, suddenly finds himself deprived of all that made life worth living: his wife (through madness), his thanes, his friends, his people's love and respect. He reflects:
I have liv'd long enough: my way of life Is fall'n into the sere and yellow leaf; And that which should accompany old age, As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends, I must not look to have; but, in their stead, Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath, Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not. (V. iii. 22-8)

Macbeth can discover nothing to do except to go into battle and "fight, till from my bones my flesh be hack'd." There is, of course, a difference between the Byron who would "give away thy breath" and Macbeth, who fights because there 487


Byron's Last Poem

is nothing else of a manly sort to do. But they are essentially the same. Byron, too, means to fight valiantly to the last, even though he does hope for death. This similarity would probably be unconvincing were it not true that of Shakespeare's plays Byron knew Macbeth best.' In his letters and journals he quotes 38 times from Macbeth, 24 times from (I, II) Henry IV, 19 times from Hamlet, 13 times from Othello, 10 times from Richard III, and in negligible quantities from seventeen other plays. In his poetry he quotes 39 times from Macbeth, 24 times from Hamlet, 9 times from Othello, 9 times from Henry IV, and in decidedly negligible quantities from twenty 2 other plays. Combining the figures for poetry and the letters and journals, we have: Macbeth 77, Hamlet 33, Henry IV 33, Othello 22, Richard III 13. Of the 77 quotations from Macbeth,,359 are from Acts III-V, 32 from Act V, and 7 from the 62 lines of V. iii, from which scene comes the passage quoted above. It is therefore quite evident that Macbeth was Byron's favorite play, and that he knew the last three acts thoroughly, especially the fifth act-in which fifth act Macbeth has " liv'd long enough," is " a-weary of the sun." More than this, there is evidence of Byron's predilection for the " sere and yellow leaf " passage. On December 24, 1816, he wrote to Thomas Moore: "My 'way of life' (or 'may of life,' which is it, according to the commentators?)-my 'way of life' is fallen
1 In compiling the figures in this paragraph I have relied entirely upon the editorial equipment (notes and indexes) in The Works of Byron, ed. 13 vols.). E. H. Coleridge and R. E. Prothero (London, 1898-1904, Though the figures for quotations from the letters and journals represent actual quotations of phrases or lines from Macbeth, I have allowed myself to use the term "quote" a trifle loosely in connection with the poetry. A few of the latter are general references to characters, situations, or In scenes, or are clear verbal borrowings rather than direct quotations. several instances I have rejected the editors' suggestions of Shakespeare as a source. 2 The editor's references to four of these plays are unconvincing. Between the poetry and letters-journals there is a difference in the distribution of the passages quoted from Macbeth: I, 2; II, 5; III, 11; IV, 8; V, 10 (General, 3) Poetry: Letters-jour.: I, 6; II, 2; III, 5; IV, 3; V, 22. The line most often quoted by Byron is " I have supped full of horrors" (V. v. 13); other favorite lines are III. ii. 22-3 and III. iv. 24.

Frederick L. Jones


into great regularity." 4 In Don Juan (IV. 3. 5-6) 6 are the lines: " Now my sere Fancy 'falls into the yellow ILeaf."' Lady Blessington's Conversations With Lord Byron (conversations shortly before Byron left for Greece) yield three quotations by Byron from this same passage." Here they are:
(said Byron) to find one's self growing old withoutthat which should accompany old age, As honor, love, obedience, troops of friends. I feel this keenly, reckless as I appear, though there are few to whom I would avow it, and certainly not to a man. (2) In society, we were rich in poets, then in their zenith, now, alas! fallen into the sear [sic] and yellow leaf; and of wits, of whom one did not speak in the past tense. (3) For a long time I thought it was constitutional melancholy that made me think London society so insufferably tiresome; but I discovered that those who had no such malady found it equally so; the only difference was, that they yawned under the nightly inflictions, yet still continued to bear them, while I writhed, and "muttered curses not loud but deep" against the well-dressed automatons that threw a spell over my faculties. (1) It is painful

If what I am attempting to demonstrate be true, Byron's letter of March 8, 1816, to Thomas Moore is a most remarkable coincidence. Byron wrote: 7
I rejoice in your promotion as Chairman and Charitable Steward, etc., etc. These be dignities which await only the virtuous. But then, recollect you are six and thirty, (I speak this enviously-not of your age, but the " honour-love-obedience-troops of friends," which accompany it,) and I have eight years good to run before I arrive at such hoary perfecI am at all,-it tion; by which time,-if will probably be in a state of grace or progressing merits.

In Moore's thirty-sixth year Byron, while congratulating himn, quotes from the same passage in Macbeth that he was to use eight years later-a time which he looks forward to-at the end of his own thirty-sixth year as a suggestive basis for his last poem. To the Shakespeare whom he loved to depreciate in order to shock the conventional worshippers of the great dramatist, Byron unintentionally paid tribute in his last, and perhaps his noblest, poem.
Mercer University. of Byron, IV, 25. Written in the winter of 1819-20. 6 Countess of Blessington, A Journal of Conversations With Lord Byron, Boston, 1869, pp. 133-34, 227, 351. 7Works of Byron, III, 272.