A lot of the stories and legends that follow the name Lord Byron have to do with his exuberant personality, his apparent lunacy, and his wide array of sexual relations. Despite this, a number of his most popular poem depict Byron at his most sentimental, seeing him expressing his more inner feelings, ones that may seem somewhat contrary to the reputation he’d earned in his lifetime. ‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ is a poem that more closely enables the reader to imagine the more uncouth side of the erratic Lord and poet. The romantic language and sentimentality seen throughout gives the reader an accurate image of the poet at his most notorious, though the language remains typical of Byron’s powerful sentimentality and honest emotional expression.
Maid of Athens, Ere We Part Analysis
Maid of Athens, ere we part,
Give, O, give me back my heart!
Or, since that has left my breast,
Keep it now, and take the rest!
Hear my vow before I go,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.
Byron’s ‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ begins with the line that gives it its title, as is traditional of poems that are not given a proper name. It addresses a women — a maid of Athens, and suggests straight away that the speaker and the Maid knew one another and are now being forced to part ways. The narrator pleads with the Maid, saying she has his heart, and since she has his heart, she must either return it to him before he leaves, or keep it, in which case he too would have to stay. Before the speaker leaves, he utters a parting phrase in her native language, translating roughly into “My life, I love you.”
‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ is written in a style fairly typical of Byron, where every other line rhymes with the one before it in an AABBCC manner. It is also written in a macaronic style, meaning Byron has borrowed elements of Greek language to augment his English poem. The pronunciation of ἀγαπῶ fits with the rhyming format, rhyming with “go,” as it is pronounced “sah-gah-PO.”
By those tresses unconfined,
Wooed by each Ægean wind;
By those lids whose jetty fringe
Kiss thy soft cheeks’ blooming tinge;
By those wild eyes like the roe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.
Continuing the same structure as the previous verse, the speaker begins to describe the object of his desire. He describes her tresses, an older word for locks of hair, and speaker of the Ægean winds that brought him to her (a likely reference to the Aegean sea, an aspect of the Mediterranean that separates Greece from Turkey). He imagines her soft cheeks tinged red, and her eyes. The language is heavily romanticized, and high attention is paid to detail as Byron described each physical feature of the poem’s subject.
By that lip I long to taste;
By that zone-encircled waist;
By all the token-flowers that tell
What words can never speak so well;
By love’s alternate joy and woe,
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.
The third verse of ‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ focuses a lot more on the speaker’s desires, focusing on the woman’s lips and her waist especially. He discusses the joys and woes of being in love, and this suggests that the subject of the poem does not share his sentiments. And still, each verse ends with a declaration of love, made all the more poignant by its utterance in the native language of the Maid of Athens.
Maid of Athens! I am gone.
Think of me, sweet! when alone.
Though I fly to Istambol,
Athens holds my heart and soul:
Can I cease to love thee? No!
Ζωή μου, σᾶς ἀγαπῶ.
By the final verse, the speaker has left, heading towards Istanbul, Turkey (and likely crossing the Aegean sea to do so), but still thinking about the girl he’s left behind. He declares that he will always love her, and that she kept his heart, as referenced in the first verse. He hopes she will think of him, and one last time, tells her he loves her in her native language.
‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ is a very straightforward poem in its meaning, and expresses much of Byron’s sentimentality and affinity for romantic verse. It is very heavy in descriptions and expression of feeling, but reveals little in terms of actual character or story, preferring to focus on the separation of the two individuals instead.
Lord Byron wrote ‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ in 1810, during a time for which he was living in Greece, as a part of his Grand Tour, a customary trip of Europe embarked on by noblemen for whom it was considered a strong lesson in the Renaissance and wider European cultures. While in Athena, Byron stayed briefly with Tarsia Makri, a native to Athens. Despite Byron’s alleged homosexual affair with a fourteen-year-old boy, Byron fell in love with Makri’s twelve-year-old daughter, Teresa (he was twenty-two at the time). Before departing to continue his tour in Constantinople, Byron wrote the girl a poem, and offered £500 for her hand in marriage — as the two never married, it is clear the offer was rejected.
In this historic context, ‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ can be viewed in a rather different light. Realizing that the poem is written for someone ten years his minor, and is written on the heels of another sexual relationship, paints Byron more in the light that he was famous for at the time — flamboyant, notorious, and, as famously described, “mad, bad, and dangerous to know.” It is easy to view ‘Maid of Athens, Ere We Part’ as an attempt at seduction or wooing by Byron, trying to encourage the young girl to believe he was desperate for her love. This throws the sincerity of the piece into question. Alternatively, it is possible that Byron’s affections were simply like flames, that burned brightly and intensely before quickly dying out. Perhaps Byron truly did love Teresa Makri, but it was not long before he was on to the next passion, the next poem, the next story to build up the reputation of the notorious poet, lord, and lover.