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Pictures and Poems : Volume 6

Newstead Abbey and Hucknall, Nottinghamshire

England has produced two huge celebrity poets. One was moderately successful during his lifetime, carving out a comfortable living and buying up property in his home town in the Midlands. The other was hugely successful and spent much of his life selling off property in the Midlands to fund a life of poems, passion and adventure. Both are regarded as being in the very highest rank of the world’s greatest writers. Both have left a legacy of works that few have completely read through. Both had three children. One got to 52 and quite possibly died from a sexually transmitted infection. The other died at 36 of typhoid fever while leading a private army in a Greek war of independence.

One’s fame and celebrity has grown exponentially since his death, the other has been quietly diminished. His status as a writer keeps his name alive but his memory has not been celebrated. You can’t move in Stratford on Avon for Shakespeare tea rooms, guided tours, street performers, open top bus rides, endless performances of his works and chances to see the houses he once inhabited. No less than than four theatres have been built specially to show his plays. In Nottinghamshire you can’t get inside Newstead Abbey unless you make special arrangements, and you can walk round the town of Hucknall oblivious to the fact that one of the greatest writers, and most famous Englishman, lived there. A plaque on the side of a pub and and closed down Bingo Hall bear his name. His body lies in the parish church but no great fuss is made.We know very little about Shakespeare. Much of what goes for fact is supposition and there is continued doubt (not shared by me) as to whether he actually wrote the works for which he is famed. Despite this a multi billion dollar world wide industry has grown up around him. We know plenty (perhaps too much for some) about George Gordon. He lived his life in the full blaze of publicity, enjoyed his notoriety, caused scandal with an ease many a modern bad boy would envy. To put their contemporary fame in perspective. Shakespeare was about as well known in his time as film maker Ken Loach is today. Widely respected, admired even, but quite able to walk down the street without being pestered. Byron’s fame on the other hand would put him on a par with Lady Diana. His every utterance published, every move remarked upon and never out of the public eye.

Byron left behind a trail of mistresses and affairs with men and women, abandoned children, an incestuous relationship, incessant and biting criticism of his peers, a revolutionary approach to politics. When told at Cambridge he couldn’t have a dog in the college he returned with a bear. He used his main reception room at Newstead for wrestling matches and pistol practice. Though in the very pinnacle  of writers (only Shakespeare, Milton and Chaucer possibly come ahead of him in this country*) he was refused burial in Westminster Abbey. He might not have minded; William Hazlitt said that if he (Byron) had been put there he would have got up and walked straight out. When he was laid to rest in his home town church, much of the aristocracy and many political leaders refused to attend.He was labelled by his lover, Lady Caroline Lamb (imagine a cross between a young Liz Hurley and JK Rowling) as “mad, bad and dangerous to know”. He was quite the boyo!

He still gets read but I am not alone in wishing he was more widely known. His works are beautifully structured, dazzlingly provocative and often very funny. He tells a story well and is second to none in a gift for pricking pretension. Apparently he could reel off iambic pentameters at the speed of normal speech. At his death his brain was weighed at 5 pounds rather than the average 3 pounds. He was born with club foot and was severely hindered by this and yet was an admired athlete who once swam the 4 miles of heavy currents we call the Hellespont.

He was in almost every way a most remarkable man.

I’ve chosen two of his shorter poems. (The long ones are very long indeed!) One is perhaps his most famous and justly so. It is true beauty. I’ll let it speak for itself.

She Walks in Beauty Like the Night

She walks in beauty, like the night

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes;

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

 

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express,

How pure, how dear their dwelling-place.

 

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!

George Gordon (Lord Byron)

The second is read by almost every visitor to Newstead Abbey. You can’t always get into the house (a pity because it is well worth it)  so visitors make a sedate and leisurely stroll around the grounds and gardens (beautifully looked after by Nottingham City Council). One by one they settle in front of what looks like a memorial near the ruined chapel. It is in fact the grave of a dog and on it are two pieces of writing. The first (often attributed to Byron) is actually written by the poet’s  friend John Hobhouse. Hobhouse knew Byron for many years and saw a remarkable man, a brilliant man, a man worth knowing.In this simple verse dedicated to his dog we see so many of the qualities we would like to find in anyone we would call friend. When I go to Newstead, which is often, I take time to read the verse anew. It’s a lovely place and a first class day out but there isn’t a great deal to tell you about who the poet was; particularly when the buildings are closed. The simple grave and the simple verse (and dedication) give an insight into the man and provide some answers to why he was so incredibly popular.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
Boatswain, a Dog
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th, 1808

When some proud Son of Man returns to Earth,
Unknown to Glory, but upheld by Birth,
The sculptor’s art exhausts the pomp of woe,
And storied urns record who rests below.
When all is done, upon the Tomb is seen,
Not what he was, but what he should have been.
But the poor Dog, in life the firmest friend,
The first to welcome, foremost to defend,
Whose honest heart is still his Master’s own,
Who labours, fights, lives, breathes for him alone,
Unhonoured falls, unnoticed all his worth,
Denied in heaven the Soul he held on earth –
While man, vain insect! hopes to be forgiven,
And claims himself a sole exclusive heaven.

Oh man! thou feeble tenant of an hour,
Debased by slavery, or corrupt by power –
Who knows thee well, must quit thee with disgust,
Degraded mass of animated dust!
Thy love is lust, thy friendship all a cheat,
Thy tongue hypocrisy, thy heart deceit!
By nature vile, ennobled but by name,
Each kindred brute might bid thee blush for shame.
Ye, who behold perchance this simple urn,
Pass on – it honours none you wish to mourn.
To mark a friend’s remains these stones arise;
I never knew but one — and here he lies.

 

 

  • Happy to be corrected here
  • ** The vault of Hucknall Church also contains the body of his daughter, Ada Lovelace; one of the great female mathematicians.