“Fare Thee Well!” (click for comments)

You will already know the story of the separation between Byron and his wife from several different sources: the biopic, the encyclopedia entry. Byron and Annabella had married on January 2, 1815. We are now going to zoom in on a particular episode. I’ll cite two brief summaries of the events of early 1816:

    1. W. Paul Elledge (1985)

Following the birth of Augusta Ada on 10 December 1815, relations between Byron and his wife continued the rapid deterioration notable from early November when normal anxiety over the approaching confinement was exacerbated by a bailiff’s occupation of the house. Byron appears to have vented a good deal of rage and frustration over financial pressures in occasional verbal abuse of his wife, some of it hinting at his amorous relations elsewhere and at plans for a foreign excursion without her. Bewildered and apprehensive,she cultivated a suspicion that he was mentally deranged (possibly a murderer) and delayed a scheduled visit to her parents’ home in the hope of securing medical verification of it. On 15 January 1816 she left Piccadilly Terrace for Kirkby,but wrote Byron admonishingly and yet with good will that evening, in route. By private messenger on Friday, 2 February, after the letter had been intercepted and returned by a well-meaning Augusta the previous Monday, Byron received notification from his father-in-law that separation arrangements were underway. After weeks of distressed appeals and stubborn resistance on his part, coolly determined letters but often distraught behavior on his wife’s, and feverish consultations among their associates-during which time Byron’s mood ranged from initial astonishment through an agitation and depression that led Augusta to fear his suicide, finally to an exhausted and nearly despairing exasperation rendering him particularly susceptible to the importunities of Claire Clairmont- the preliminary Separation Agreement was signed on 17 March. The next day Byron wrote “”Fare Thee Well”” but held it for forty-eight hours before posting it along with a brief note to his wife. Two days later, Hobhouse found him in good spirits, eager to embark for foreign shores. On Byron’s instructions,””Fare Thee Well”” was first printed for private circulation on 8 April, and then without authorization was reproduced with “”A Sketch”” on 14 April in the Champion newspaper. Amidst the scandalized public outcry, directed almost entirely against “”A Sketch,”” Byron fled to Dover on the 23rd, the day after signing the final separation agreement, and thence to the continent on the 25th.

2. Susan Wolfson (2010)

In a match that seemed absurd to all, Lord Byron and heiress Miss Milbank wed on 2 January 1815. Daughter Ada was born in December, and within a month, a little month, on 15 January 1816, Lady Byron packed her up and left for her parents’ home. Early in February Lady Byron’s father sent Byron a letter notifying him of her wish for a separation. Byron was stung; rumors and gossip bubbled and boiled, the press got involved in mid-April…”Fare thee well!” [began as] some lines of poetry that Byron sent to his “Dearest Bell” in late March or early April (BLJ5: 51-52), just after the draft Separation Agreement, before the finalization five weeks later. “I had a copy of Verses from his Lordship yesterday-very tender and so he talks of me to Every one,” Bell wrote to her mother (Elwin 448). Intimacy notwithstanding, copies were legion. Byron showed his friend Moore the lines (“the tears, as he said, falling fast over the paper as he wrote”), then sent either this paper, blotted, or a fresh copy off to Murray, who quickly shared it (Byron knew he would) with Gifford, Rogers, Canning, Frere, and many others, even Caroline Lamb. Byron then asked Murray to print it up, along with a nasty “Sketch” on Lady Byron’s Maid. Murray relished this last piece, cheering for the general male-clubbing. “It is tremendously exquisite,” he wrote to Byron on 1 April; “the most astringent dose that was ever presented to female Character” (L 159). Byron’s private label debuted a week later, on April 8, for distribution to fifty close friends. The network quickly went wide. Old nemesis Henry Brougham poached a copy, dashing it over to the Champion’s editor John Scott, who featured the two poems in the 14 April Sunday paper, elaborated with attacks on Byron’s character. A feeding frenzy ensued, piracies erupted, and within days everyone from Wordsworth to Stael had weighed in…The whole world interacted. Shops filled with cartoons and caricatures; pamphlets volleyed parodies, gossip, poems cast in the voice of Lady Byron (in a range of tones), spuriously attributed to her or the Lord, and so forth.

Talk about a poem with a detailed biographical context!  And yet, it names no names.

It existed for different audiences in turn:

1) Lady Byron;

2) a small group of Byron’s friends and associates;

3) the newspaper reading public (who knew Byron only by reputation)

4) the readers of Byron’s 1816 Poems, issued at year’s end by his authorized publisher John Murray, who prefaced that volume with the following notice:

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As some of the Verses in this Collection were evidently not intended for general circulation, they would not have appeared in this authentic form, had they not been already dispersed through the medium of the public press, to an extent that must take away the regret which, under other circumstances, the reader might perhaps experience in finding them included amongst the acknowledged publications of the Noble Author.

5) Byron became a “classic”; this poem was collected in countless volumes after his death, arranged by editors, included in anthologies of English poetry….

Finally, a few questions to start discussion. What is the “best” way to read this poem? How much about Byron’s life do you need to know; how much do you want to know? What do you need to remember, or forget, to sympathize with this speaker; what do you need to remember or forget to find the speaker a villain?

10 Replies to ““Fare Thee Well!” (click for comments)”

  1. I think the best way to read this poem is to know the historical context and circumstance around the poem. You don’t need to know about his life to understand the poem but the history behind it gives the poem a deeper meaning and is helpful in understanding Byron’s mindset in that point of his life. He had infidelity problems and many could argue that his broken marriage is entirely his fault. To sympathize with the speaker you need to forget about Byron’s odd relationship with his sister and his anger issues towards his wife and if you want to see him as a villain you would need to remember these facts when reading the poem.

  2. I think knowing the historical context kind of spoils the sweetness of the verses. I wouldn’t want to know that it is the speakers own fault that his wife is leaving and that he has little to no remorse about it, as is the case with Byron. These facts make the message of the poem seem empty and not as affecting.

  3. I believe that knowing the historical context gives the poem more emotion for the reader. Keeping the unhealthy relationship in mind between Byron and his wife gives the reader the option of interpreting the poem from either Byron or his wife’s perspective.

  4. OK, we’ve got a pretty stark contrast here already: knowledge of historical context makes the poem “empty and not as affecting,” for Julia, but gives it “more emotion” for McLean…..

    others?

  5. Personally , I don’t think it is necessary to know any background information or historical details. Regardless of knowing the background story the reader can still read and understand the meaning of the poem but , knowing the background details could take the reader more in depth to not just understand the poem but also understand the author. In this particular poem I believe knowing less is more .

  6. I feel as though it’s not necessary for the reader to have previous information on Lord Byron in order to successfully read this poem. On the other hand, if the reader wanted to create a more elaborate opinion on Byron and his writing, they could have some prior knowledge on Byron’s life. There’s never one specific way to ‘read’ a poem, it all determines on the reader’s views towards the writer and how the reader views the topic that the writer presents- such as love. In order to sympathize with a writer, the reader needs to eliminate or add any information about the author that could affect the story; same thing with sympathizing of understanding “villainous” characters.

    1. “Eliminate” or “add”: indeed! and in the case of this poem’s particular speaker, there was a great deal of information in 1816, but not all of it was equally available to all readers of the poem..

  7. Every piece of writing has a purpose. Knowing what that purpose is changes the experience of the reader, but it does not result in an experience that is inherently better or worse than that of an ignorant reader.

    Now that we are in the information era, we can look anything up in Google and find an answer to our doubts and questions. What makes this unique is that the reader, for the first time, has a choice: does the reader want to use his imagination to link the references and fill the missing pieces of a piece of writing, or does the reader want to use the writing as yet another source to add up to their comprehension of the writer, or perhaps, something surrounding that writer or the piece he wrote?

    In the end, perhaps it is fair to say that this boils down to the question, “what is art for”, and the reader’s behaviour and decision regarding whether to read knowing about the writer or not to, just a consequence of their answer. Some want art to be for art’s sake, and may not look into the context but rather into the content; others may want art to have a specific purpose, and may want to know how politics or society influenced the poem. What I think is beautiful about this is that, after the readers take in the art and process it, the art is no longer the author’s, but humanity’s; and all the perspectives from which the work is viewed are now entangled with the piece itself.

  8. I like your last sentence, Cos! So (con)text becomes a single web, where poem and its world can’t be separated….I wonder about the “information age,” though: it’s certainly EASIER to conduct research than ever before, but I think there remains the question–is a poem primarily part of the game of “information-exchange” or (as you imply later in your comment) is it part of some other game we play with words?

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