‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull’ was written in 1808. It is part of Lord Byron’s early poetry. He was only 19 years old when he wrote this poem, where he expresses his disdainful thoughts surrounding death.
The poem has six quatrains with an ABAB rhyme scheme. The rhythm of the poem is cyclical, so that every quatrain completes its meaning by its consistent musicality. The tone of the poem is humorous and absurd and the language is grotesque and archaic.
Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull Analysis
Start not—nor deem my spirit fled:
In me behold the only skull
From which, unlike a living head,
Whatever flows is never dull.
The first stanza of ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull’ starts by setting the scene. The poem focuses on the lyrical voice’s thoughts and the first lines convey this: “Start not—nor deem my spirit fled”. Moreover, a skull is rapidly mentioned (“In me behold the only skull”) and it is going to be a central figure in the poem. Notice that the skull works as a symbolism and contrasts with the living (“From which, unlike a living head,/Whatever flows is never dull”). Nevertheless, the lyrical voice finds the dead skull more interesting than a human head. The poem starts by appointing death over life, as the lyrical voice, from the very beginning, chooses the dead skull. The dead skull is a symbolism for “Memento Mori”, a Medieval Latin Christian theory and practice that can literally be translated as “remember death”.
I lived, I loved, I quaff’d, like thee:
I died: let earth my bones resign;
Fill up—thou canst not injure me;
The worm hath fouler lips than thine.
The second stanza focuses on the lyrical voice. Throughout this stanza, the lyrical voice is comparing him/herself to the skull that he/she has; both the skull and him/her have lived and will die. The stanza starts by enumerating all the things he/she did in his/her life: “I lived, I loved, I quaff’d, like thee”. The lyrical voice compares himself to the skull, to every man, who “like thee: I died let earth my bones resign”. The concept of “Memento Mori” can be seen in these words, as they are a reminder of death and they use the image of the bones to portray death. Death, however, is shown with a grotesque image (“The worm hath fouler lips than thine”) in order not to show the dead body as sacred. Moreover, like in “Memento Mori”, there is an inevitably in death that is shown as natural and not as unpleasant (“Fill up—thou canst not injure me”).
Better to hold the sparkling grape,
Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood;
And circle in the goblet’s shape
The drink of Gods, than reptiles’ food.
The third stanza of ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull’ furthers on the skull. The lyrical voice talks about the use he/she gives to the skull. For him/her, it is better to hold “sparkling grape” (an image to portray the action of holding alcoholic beverages) than to be buried dead (“Than nurse the earth-worm’s slimy brood”). Notice that, again, death is not portrayed as sacred, but in a grotesque way, as the dead body serves as food for earthworms. The lyrical voice questions the purpose of dead, and uses the skull to portray this. The skull has “The drink of Gods” whereas the buried bodies are “reptiles’ food”. Thus, the imagery surrounding the skull (“sparkling”, “drink of Gods”) contrasts greatly with that of the dead body (“slimy”, “reptiles’”).
Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone,
In aid of others’ let me shine;
And when, alas! our brains are gone,
What nobler substitute than wine?
The fourth stanza shifts the focus back to the lyrical voice. The lyrical voice longs to aid others after his/her death (“Where once my wit, perchance, hath shone, In aid of others’ let me shine”). He/she is looking for a purpose after his/her possible and inevitable death. This inevitability is furthered and accentuated by the images of the brains (“And when, alas! our brains are gone”). Yet, the lyrical voice references the skull serving as a cup of wine (“What nobler substitute than wine?”) to find a purpose and a way of enduring after his/her own death.
Quaff while thou canst—another race,
When thou and thine like me are sped,
May rescue thee from earth’s embrace,
And rhyme and revel with the dead.
The fifth stanza introduces the “Carpe diem” (translated as “seize the day”) concept. The lyrical voice urges to live intensely (“Quaff while thou canst—another race”) because when someone does that they might be rescued from “earth’s embrace” (death) to “rhyme and revel with the dead”. Basically, the lyrical voice prefers, once again, to escape being buried in order and have a different afterlife than lying under the earth.
Why not? since through life’s little day
Our heads such sad effects produce;
Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay,
This chance is theirs, to be of use.
The final stanza of ‘Lines Inscribed Upon a Cup Formed From a Skull’ furthers on the “Carpe diem”. The lyrical voice continues with his/her idea of living in the moment (“Why not? since through life’s little day/ Our heads such sad effects produce”) and urges to change a dull life into a life of pleasure (“Redeem’d from worms and wasting clay”). Once again, the idea of usefulness is mentioned, but this time it is explicit: “This chance is theirs, to be of use”.
About George Gordon Byron
George Gordon Byron, more commonly known as Lord Byron, was born in 1788 and died in 1824. He was an English poet, nobleman, politician, and peer. Lord Byron was a leading figure in the Romantic Movement, particularly of the second generation alongside Percy Shelley and John Keats. He is believed to be one of the greatest English poets of all time and he is still widely read and studied around the world. Lord Byron’s most notable works include Don Juan (1819), Manfred (1817), Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812), and Mazeppa (1819).
Lord Byron is often described as the most exuberant and infamous of the Romantic poets. He was known for his aristocratic excesses, including debts, affairs, and scandals. Lord Byron traveled greatly through Europe and lived some years in Italy. He married Anne Isabella Milbanke for a short period of time and had a girl, Ada, Countess of Lovelace. Lord Byron also had another child, Allegra Byron, with Claire Clairmont, but he is supposed to have, at least, two illegitimate children. He died at the age of 36 from a fever in Missolonghi, Greece.