February 22, 2018

"Let not my body be hacked...."

On this day in 1824 Byron's body arrived in London, returned home for burial from Missolonghi, Greece, where the poet had died ten weeks earlier. Though his last days were confused and feverish -- the exact cause of death is not known -- Byron was clear on several points: "Let not my body be hacked, or be sent to England.... Lay me in the first corner without pomp or nonsense." Neither hacking, nor shipping, nor pomp and nonsense proved escapable. The reassembled body, minus lungs gifted to the citizens of Missolonghi, and identifiable after pickled transport only by its club foot, was refused burial in Westminster and St. Paul's or any kind of official honor. The press paid high tribute and the public wept, but high society felt so compromised by Byron's "League of Incest" reputation and his revolutionary politics that they chose to both go and not go to the funeral. Thus, on its procession through London, first stage of a four-day trip to the family church in Hucknall Torkard, the coach-and-six which carried the casket with Byron's body and the urns with his inner organs was observed by hordes but followed by forty-seven, mostly-empty carriages.

In fact, Byron, too, felt that his last months had been an almost-empty gesture. When he embarked for Greece from Italy the previous summer, it was with the idea that his name, money and idealism would bring new hope to a noble revolutionary struggle. That he might also get away from his Italian mistress, and get a chance to wear the splashy, plumed helmets he had designed for himself and his "personal staff," were important but secondary reasons. It may be true that Byron believed himself "on a fool's errand from the outset," but after six months spent in rainy wait on one of the out-islands, the "commander in chief of Western Greece" was even more disillusioned. Few wanted anything more than his money, and many-from his teenaged page-lover, to his personal army, to the provisional government -- got a lot of it. By the end, Byron had to stop writing in his journal in order to spare himself his observations on the fiasco. His last entry, on his thirty-sixth birthday, is followed by a poem expressing his final love (unrequited, for his Greek page), his final despair and his wish to overcome it by a worthy death:
    ...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 fire that on my bosom preys
    Is lone as some volcanic isle;
    No torch is kindled at its blaze-
    A funeral pile.

    The hope, the fear, the jealous care,
    The exalted portion of the pain
    And power of love, I cannot share,
    But wear the chain.

         .       .       .       .       .       .

    Tread those reviving passions down,
    Unworthy manhood!-unto thee
    Indifferent should the smile or frown
    Of beauty be.

    If thou regrett'st thy youth, why live?
    The land of honourable death
    Is here:-up to the field, and give
    Away thy breath!

    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.

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