By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Dated ‘Missolonghi, Jan. 22, 1824’, ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ is a poem Lord Byron wrote on his 36th birthday, less than three months before he died. Byron was at Missolonghi, in Greece, fighting with the Greeks in their war for independence. It’s one of Byron’s most meditative and personal poems, and remains one of his more popular poems.
‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ deserves closer analysis because of the ways in which Byron cleverly uses allusion, language, and imagery to create a poem that is at once both a poem of defiance and a plangent lament. Perhaps the best way to analyse the poem is to go through it, stanza by stanza, offering a summary of each stage of Byron’s ‘argument’.
On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year
’Tis time this heart should be unmoved,
Since others it hath ceased to move:
Yet though I cannot be beloved,
Still let me love!
Byron begins the poem by making a rather tragic announcement: since his heart has lost its ability to ‘move’ others (i.e. he’s incapable of being loved any more), the time has come for his to be ‘unmoved’ by others. In other words, if he is unlovable, it’s time he stopped falling in love with other people.
But then, in the second half of the stanza, Byron appears to go against this: ‘Still let me love!’ he exclaims. Although he knows he should stop foolishly falling in love, he knows that it is the essence of who he is. He may not be desirable to others any more, but he can still give, even if he will no longer take or receive any love in return. This is a call to selflessness: giving love unconditionally, without the hope of its being returned.
Note the rhyme scheme of Byron’s stanzas: unmoved/move/beloved/love gives us an abab alternate rhyme scheme, which we also observe in the subsequent stanzas (e.g. leaf/gone/grief/alone in the next stanza). But, of course, ‘unmoved’ and ‘move’, and ‘beloved’ and ‘love’, belong to each other too: so although the rhyme scheme of this opening stanza is abab, we might say there is a semantic rhyme of aabb, because ‘unmoved’ and ‘move’, for instance, are linked in terms of their meanings.
My days are in the yellow leaf;
The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;
The worm – the canker, and the grief
Are mine alone!
The first line of this second stanza alludes to Macbeth’s lines from Shakespeare’s play: ‘my way of life / Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf’. The leaves turn yellow in the autumn, of course, before they drop from the trees and die. Byron continues this floral imagery in the next line, keeping the focus on love (personified and made absolute as ‘Love’). Both the beautiful aspects of love, and the pleasures (‘fruits’) it yielded, are now denied to the poet.
All that’s left are the things which eat away at the flower: the worm, or the ‘canker’ (a destructive fungal disease, which is particularly known for attacking fruit trees) and the ‘grief’ they bring. ‘Are mine alone’ means ‘are the only things I can call mine’: Byron isn’t being hyperbolic and claiming he’s the only one to know these things.
The fire that on my bosom preys
Is lone as some Volcanic Isle;
No torch is kindled at its blaze:
A funeral pile.
However, he is alone, like an island of volcanoes, which smoulder and burn with heat (in Byron’s case, the heat of passion). But this fire can light no torch (of hope, or love): it’s not the flame of hope, but the fire of a funeral pyre, symbolising death and decay.
The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
The exalted portion of the pain
And power of Love I cannot share,
But wear the chain.
Byron cannot benefit from love – whether the hope of love, the fear of losing someone, the jealousy possessive love can arouse, or the pain and power of loving someone – but he is still enslaved by love, wearing its chain around him. Before Bryan Ferry came along, Byron was the original ‘slave to love’.
It’s worth noting that Byron saves this sentiment from spilling over into full-blown self-pity by viewing love in a measured and level-headed way: love is not just hope and power, but also pain and fear (and jealousy). Love isn’t all a bed of roses, after all.
But ’tis not thus – and ’tis not here
Such thoughts should shake my Soul, nor now,
Where Glory decks the hero’s bier,
Or binds his brow.
Byron’s ‘But’ here signifies a kind of turn in his argument, much as a volta in a sonnet marks the point where the poet’s thought changes tack or direction. One can imagine Byron shaking his head as if bringing himself back to the moment, after his digressive period of self-reflection, before dusting his hands down and saying, ‘But anyway, what needs doing?’
And what needs doing here is ‘Glory’ and heroism: Byron is fighting with the Greeks for their independence, and knows that he should set aside all thoughts of love and instead focus on the fight at hand.
The Sword, the Banner, and the Field,
Glory and Greece around us see!
The Spartan borne upon his shield
Was not more free.
Looking around himself at the field of battle and the glory and honour it represents – the Greeks are fighting for their freedom, after all – Byron declares that these modern-day Greeks are as free as the warlike Spartans of ancient times, from whom these latter-day Greeks are descended.
Awake (not Greece – she is awake!)
Awake, my Spirit! Think through whom
Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake
And then strike home!
Byron recalls that Ancient Greece was the cradle of modern European civilisation: Byron sees himself as a descendant of those ancient Spartans, as if there were a bloodline extending down the millennia from the ancient Greeks leading straight to Lord Byron himself. So he calls upon his own fighting spirit to awaken, spurring himself to action.
Tread those reviving passions down
Unworthy Manhood—unto thee
Indifferent should the smile or frown
Of beauty be.
Byron tells his ‘Spirit’ to suppress thoughts of love or desire (‘Unworthy Manhood’, much like Henry V’s talk of men holding their ‘manhoods cheap’, is a bawdy nod not only to masculinity itself but to what’s physically between the poet’s legs): he should be unmoved (remember, as he said in that first stanza) by love and beauty.
If thou regret’st thy Youth, why live?
The land of honourable Death
Is here:—up to the Field, and give
Away thy breath!
He addresses himself (or his ‘Spirit’, if you will), asking himself the rhetorical question: ‘If you regret getting up to all of the wild and sinful things you did in your mouth, then why keep yourself alive? Why not die of shame? Death – and an honourable death too – awaits you if you step out onto the field of battle and give your life for this noble cause.’
Seek out – less often sought than found –
A Soldier’s Grave, for thee the best;
Then look around, and choose thy Ground,
And take thy rest.
Byron concludes ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ by continuing to address himself. ‘Seek out a soldier’s grave for yourself, and die a soldier’s death. Many men get such a death, though few men actively go in search of it, as I do. Find a nice spot to stand your ground and be cut down in battle, and then die a good death, having fought for a worthy cause.’
‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ is written in iambic metre, i.e. a lightly stressed syllable followed by a heavily stressed one. The first three lines of each quatrain are iambic tetrameter (i.e., four iambs in a line), while each stanza concludes with a shorter line of iambic dimeter (two iambs). We can see this in the poem’s second stanza:
My DAYS are IN the YEL-low LEAF;
The FLOWERS and FRUITS of LOVE are GONE;
The WORM – the CAN-ker, AND the GRIEF
Are MINE a-LONE!
Because many English words naturally follow the iambic metrical pattern, Byron’s use of this metre in ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ lends the poem an air of ordinary speech, as if Byron is confiding in us by taking us to one side on his birthday and telling us that he intends to make a good end to his life, to atone for his past.
About Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron (1788-1824) was one of the most famous English poets of second-generation Romanticism, and thanks to his colourful private life, he was certainly the most controversial. He attained considerable fame in 1812 while a young man in his twenties with his poem ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’: Byron famously commented that he ‘awoke one morning and found I was famous’.
He had been educated at Cambridge (where he is rumoured to have kept a pet bear in his college rooms, on the grounds that keeping pet dogs was banned), and after he graduated he travelled widely, wrote poems, and ramped up eye-watering amounts of debt, thanks to his extravagant lifestyle. He courted controversy through his various affairs, the breakup of his marriage, and rumours that he was involved with his own half-sister.
He fled to the Continent in 1816, and it was at Byron’s villa that the famous ghost-story competition took place which resulted in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
Byron could command vast sums of money for new instalments to his long comic picaresque narrative poem Don Juan (whose title character, a lothario and adventurer, is a thinly disguised version of Byron himself), and this helped him out of debt, but eventually his dissolute lifestyle caught up with him.
Seeking to make up for a life of scandal and profligacy, Byron travelled to Greece to fight for Greek independence, but he contracted a fever and died, aged thirty-six, in 1824.