To Caroline by Lord Byron

Most people wouldn’t think of the kind of man to embark on wildly flamboyant sexual affairs as being one to write expressive, beautiful poetry, but then, Lord George Gordon Byron  (biography of Lord Byron) was a very contradictory man, one who could be wildly devoted to pursuing and courting a woman before quickly losing interest after she’d agreed to be with him. Byron’s work, To Caroline, provides the reader with insights into his very complicated and often troubled relationships with others. Despite the historic nature of the affair, the poem expresses deep sentiments and a strong sense of sorrow. It is an excellent means for assessing some of Lord Byron’s complex character, and a touching piece of poetry as well.

 

Historical Context

The title of the poem, ‘To Caroline’, itself begs a number of questions, the principle one being the question of who Caroline is, and what she meant to Byron. Lady Caroline Lamb lived between 1785 and 1828, and was the wife of Lord William Lamb, who’s political aspirations saw him mentoring the future Queen Victoria, serving as Home Secretary for England, and later as its Prime Minister as well. During her lifetime, however, he was a man consumed by aspirations to reach these heights, and they created a strain on the couple’s relationship, a happy one only for the first half or so of their marriage. She would go on to bear two children; a daughter, born prematurely, who died shortly after the birth, and a son, who was mentally challenged, likely with a form of autism. It was at this point in her life that Lady Caroline met Lord Byron.

Despite her first meeting with Lord Byron going less-than-ideally — it was her who coined the well-known idea that Byron was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” — they would begin an affair in 1812, which began as a secretive notion, but later became common knowledge. Less than a year later, Byron ended the relationship, and Lady Caroline’s husband exiled her to Ireland. For the next year, she continued to exchange letters with Byron, who, upon her return in 1813, made it clear he had no interest in resuming their relationship. At a public function, he spurned her advances, and her resulting anger made some question her mental stability. Her obsession with Byron continued for years afterwards, though their relationship was never resumed after her exile in 1813.

In 1816, Lady Caroline wrote Glenarvon, and Lord Byron left England permanently. The central characters of the novel were very obviously based on the affair between Byron and Caroline, and Lord Byron would write a public response to the novel, and he wrote To Caroline during the next year, leading to speculation that the poem is his response to the novel.

 

To Caroline Analysis

Think’st thou I saw thy beauteous eyes,

Suffus’d in tears, implore to stay;

And heard unmov’d thy plenteous sighs,

Which said far more than words can say?

The poem begins with the narrator — which can be assumed to be the voice of Lord Byron directed to Lady Caroline — asking if she believes he listened to and heard her when she was sad. He describes her face as being suffused (or gradually covered) in tears, and saying that her sighs (the word “plenteous” indicating that she was sighing often) expressed her grief far more strongly than any words could. This paints the image of a couple parting, for she is imploring him to stay, and weeping heavily at the notion that he might not.

The structure established in this verse suits the poem well; a simple ABAB rhyming structure based in poetic, expressive vocabulary gives the poem a romantic feel to it, which works well considering the subject discussed. To describe so flourishingly the saddening scene is to give in additional depth and dimension, which Byron manages seemingly easily.

Though keen the grief thy tears exprest,

When love and hope lay both o’erthrown;

Yet still, my girl, this bleeding breast

Throbb’d, with deep sorrow, as thine own.


But, when our cheeks with anguish glow’d,

When thy sweet lips were join’d to mine;

The tears that from my eyelids flow’d

Were lost in those which fell from thine.

The second verse describes the parting of the couple in vague terms. The narrator understands the grief his former lover is feeling, and acknowledges that both their love and the hope for that relationship are done for. And yet, he still calls her “his” girl, and states that his own heard bleeds with hers, that he is feeling a similar sorrow. The next verse elaborates, as the narrator describes their last kiss; their faces are red with anguish, and when they kiss, the tears that wet their faces are coming from both of their eyes.

In this, the feeling of mutual sorrow is heavily expressed in a flawless rhyming pattern that augments the poetic language, imagery, and metaphor extremely well. When Byron describes breasts bleeding with sorrow, or that love and hope themselves have been thrown away, the language is painful, and expressive of a true breakup in a truly sad sense.

Thou could’st not feel my burning cheek,

Thy gushing tears had quench’d its flame,

And, as thy tongue essay’d to speak,

In sighs alone it breath’d my name.

The narrator describes that the falling tears mask the heat in his own face, described previously as being brought on by anguish. Neither of them have spoken, but the girl continues to attempt to; she is only able to manage sighs, but he interprets those as being his own name, that each sigh is for him alone.

And yet, my girl, we weep in vain,

In vain our fate in sighs deplore;

Remembrance only can remain,

But that, will make us weep the more.


Again, thou best belov’d, adieu!

Ah! if thou canst, o’ercome regret,

Nor let thy mind past joys review,

Our only hope is, to forget!

Once again, she is “his girl” — but not for much longer. The final two verses of To Caroline take on a harder approach to the breakup, while maintaining sorrowful undertones. He says that their tears change nothing, nor the sighs that spell his name on her lips. The relationship is over, he is saying, and all they can do is remember it… except that remembrance will lead to more sadness, which is undesirable.

And so begins the final verse of the poem; he says goodbye one last time, and asks if she can overcome her own feelings. If she can’t, he says, then her best hope, and his as well, is to simply forget — forget the relationship, forget the feelings they shared, and forget the pain of this single moment captured so well in To Caroline.

To Caroline resonates strongly with what we know of Lord Byron’s life. He was a romantic by reputation, given to the passions of the moment, but was known to tire of his relationships almost as soon as they’d begun. Caroline spent years pining after Lord Byron, even after he’d made it clear they would never see one another again. With the historic context in mind, it is easy to imagine — him, done with the relationship and her, hoping it will continue. If the poem is in fact based on their final days as a couple, it is an astonishing work that recreates a single moment in time — though whether this was Byron’s intent or not is not something we are ever likely to know.

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