On the Death of a Young Lady by Lord Byron

Lord George Gordon Byron managed to stand among the most famous people for his time, for a wide variety of reasons. A poet and political figure both, Byron experienced widespread acclaim and contempt both for his poetry, his aristocratic lifestyle, and his romantic flamboyance. Notably, Byron was involved in many love affairs with men, women, and, according to the rumours of his time, members of his own family. The truth of such rumours has never been ascertained, though Byron was never shy in his life about expressing the full grandiose of his innermost feelings in the form of his poetry. Many of his poems are written with great emotional content, focusing on atmosphere over story, and On the Death of a Young Lady is certainly one of these pieces.

At the age of twelve, Byron wrote one of his first love poems about his cousin, Margaret Parker, who was thirteen at the time. Two years later, Margaret passed away, an event which would form the inspiration for this poem, written in her honour. Byron’s early style, which would later evolve into some of the most famous poems of his time, and for a long time afterwards as well.


On the Death of a Young Lady Analysis

Cousin to the author, and very dear to him.

Hush’d are the winds, and still the evening gloom,

Not e’en a zephyr wanders through the grove,

Whilst I return, to view my Margaret’s tomb,

And scatter flowers on the dust I love.

Within this narrow cell reclines her clay,

That clay, where once such animation beam’d;

The King of Terrors seized her as his prey,

Not worth nor beauty have her life redeem’d.

The poem begins with a brief dedication, and later mentioned Margaret by name, indicating that this piece was indeed written in memory of Margaret Parker. Margaret’s inclusion as a character within the poem places Byron as the narrator of the piece, and he uses the first two verses to introduce the reader to what has happened only after the fact. Byron uses a simplistic ABAB quatrain style for One the Death of a Young Lady, and uses it to take the reader with him as he visits Margaret’s tomb. The first verse describes a scene of missing natural beauty. He mentions entering a grove, but only describes the “evening gloom,” and the stillness of the scene. He then describes the dust on which he scatters flowers as being the dust he loves. Whether the body in the tomb has literally decayed into dust, or this is merely a metaphor is difficult to say, but the intended meaning is clear.

In the second verse, the earth-related metaphors become increasingly pronounced as Byron enters Margaret’s tomb, and compares the clay likeness of the deceased to her animated life. There is a biblical reference to death as being the King of Terrors (Job 18:14), and it is clear that the speaker’s thoughts are clouded with grief, and that he cannot look past the tomb before him anymore. His sadness is profound, and he comments in the closing line that her life was too short to be ended — as mentioned earlier, Margaret Parker was fifteen years old at the time of her death.

Oh! could that King of Terrors pity feel,

Or heaven reverse the dread decree of fate,

Not here the mourner would his grief reveal,

Not here the muse her virtues would relate. 

But wherefore weep? Her matchless spirit soars

Beyond where splendid shines the orb of day;

And weeping angels lead her to those bowers

Where endless pleasures virtuous deeds repay.

The third and fourth verses take on more of Byron’s voice than the previous two do; where the introductory verses to the poem take their time setting a scene and describing a very general feeling for the author, the third verse, beginning with a sharp “oh!”, brings the more personal elements of Lord Byron’s writing to life. For much of the third verse, Byron forms his sentences strangely to accommodate the intended rhymes; his word choice is careful here, as he muses, very eloquently, that if Death was a being with even a small capacity for pity, that it would never have taken someone like Margaret. From here, he attempts to cheer himself up by imagining that her spirit shines as bright as the sun, and that she has risen among angels. This is the first show of positive imagery Byron has employed throughout On the Death of a Young Lady — the splendidly shining orb of the day, the endless pleasures, and soaring spirit are all descriptions with highly positive connotation, and it is clear that this fourth verse is written from the perspective of a grief-stricken person trying to move past his loss — while standing nearby the corpse of the deceased.

And shall presumptuous mortals Heaven arraign,

And, madly, godlike Providence accuse?

Ah! no, far fly from me attempts so vain;–

I’ll ne’er submission to my God refuse.

Yet is remembrance of those virtues dear,

Yet fresh the memory of that beauteous face;

Still they call forth my warm affection’s tear,

Still in my heart retain their wonted place. 

The concluding thoughts of On the Death of a Young Lady bring the speaker in a full circle; the poem begins with his terrible grief, and concludes with acceptance of what has happened. In the fifth verse, he chides himself as being presumptuous, knowing that he cannot accuse God in doing wrong, which means that it must simply have been Margaret’s time to pass away. He declares that he would not question the will of God, and vows instead to remember her as best as he can, and to move on in her memory. Byron’s use of extravagant and emotional language — “virtues dear,” “beauteous face,” “warm affection’s tear,” and so on — is the primary highlight of On the Death of a Young Lady. The careful choice of words helps the poem to transcend its own story; after all, the journey from grief to acceptance can be a difficult thing to explain to someone who has not experienced it themselves. Using overly grandiose terms and descriptions creates a very romanticized atmosphere that makes it easier for the reader to understand the emotional state of the author, even if they are removed from the specific content of a given verse.

The themes of loss, acceptance, and moving on are all heavily prevalent in On the Death of a Young Lady, and the most pronounced aspect of the piece is the idea of fate. Byron ultimately accept’s Margaret’s passing as being the will of God, and comes to feel that he should not question God’s will, because it will inevitably pass regardless. This idea of bowing down to fate is a significant aspect of the “acceptance” portion of On the Death of a Young Lady, and the most important “plot” development of the piece overall. Byron lived at a point in history when religion was a crucial element of everyday life, and while he certainly took as much control over his life as he dared, this poem has a lot to say about the idea that some things are simply beyond our control.

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