March 18 1816: Conceited Poet

 

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On March 18 1816 Byron completes his poem “Fare Thee Well!”, and adds an epigraph from Coleridge’s “Christabel”.  Peter Cochran makes a number of brilliant observations in his “Byron: Six Poems of Separation.” Byron was driven to write poetry while he was negotiating the terms of  his separation, when all prudence would have called for him “to maintain a discreet and (one would hope) a dignified silence”.  Cochran writes:

“If one’s marriage were to collapse in humiliating, semi-public circumstances, and if one were in part to blame for its collapse, one’s reaction would probably be to maintain a discreet and (one would hope) a dignified silence, and to hope that the thing might blow over in a year or so. Byron’s reaction was write, and publish, poetry about it while it was still collapsing. The first two of these poems were written in London – the first is to his wife, and the next about and to her friend and confidante Mrs Clermont – before he left England, on Thursday April 25th 1816. The next three were written in Switzerland after his departure, and are addressed to his half-sister Augusta. The last one is again to his wife. They show violent contrasts in style and tone (the Epistle to Augusta is Byron’s first poem in ottava rima), and strange, contrasting aspects of Byron’s nature. That he should wish them published at all is perhaps worrying. The urge to confess without necessarily repenting was, however, deep within him.

Fare Thee Well! with its elaborate air of injured innocence, and its implication that Annabella’s reasons for leaving him remain incomprehensible, sorts ill with what we know of his behaviour during the disintegration of their marriage in the latter months of 1815. John Gibson Lockhart was moved, five years later, to protest:

… why, then, did you, who are both a gentleman and a nobleman, act upon this the most delicate occasion, in all probability, your life was ever to present, as if you had been neither a nobleman nor a gentleman, but some mere overweeningly conceited poet?”

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