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'Fare Thee Well'
by George Gordon, Lord Byron
Fare thee well! and if for ever,
Still for ever, fare thee well:
Even though unforgiving, never
'Gainst thee shall my heart rebel.
Would that breast were bared before thee
Where thy head so oft hath lain,
While that placid sleep came o'er thee
Which thou never canst know again:
Would that breast, by thee glanced over,
Every inmost thought could show!
Then thou woulds't at last discover
'Twas not well to spurn it so.
Though the world for this commend thee-
Though it smile upon the blow,
Even its praise must offend thee,
Founded on another's woe:
Though my many faults deface me,
Could no other arm be found,
Than the one which once embraced me,
To inflict a cureless wound?
All my faults perchance thou knowest,
All my madness none can know;
All my hopes, where'er thou goest,
Whither, yet with thee they go.
Every feeling hath been shaken;
Pride, which not a world could bow,
Bows to thee - by thee forsaken,
Even my soul forsakes me now:
But 'tis done -all words are idle-
Words from me are vainer still;
But the thoughts we cannot bridle
Force their way without the will.
Fare thee well! thus disunited,
Torn from every nearer tie,
Seared in heart, and lone, and blighted,
More than this I scarse can die.
There are, in all, fifteen stanzas of this maudlin and disingenuous claptrap.
Legends of the 'mad, bad and dangerous to know', club-footed sixth Lord Byron abound. In point of fact, Byron's disability is more likely to have been due to poliomyelitis (though there has been some scholarly debate as to which leg actually was the game one). Either way, it seems not to have greatly inconvenienced him as he passed muster (whilst at Harrow) as a serviceable cricketer, practiced later as an amateur - in the fashion of the times - pugilist and, famously, swam the Hellespont. His sexual initiation came early, at the age of nine and at the hands of a May Gray, his nurse. Perhaps this experience fostered an abivalence in him, for the poet would take many lovers - of both sexes.
Byron became the equalvalent of a modern-day pop superstar in 1812 when, after the publication of Childe Harold, he (in his own words) 'awoke one morning and found [him]self famous'. He first met his future wife, Anne Isabella ('Annabella' or - his pet-name - 'Pippin') Milbanke, in the March of that same year, at a party given by Lady Caroline Lamb. She was the only child of the sixth baronet, Sir Ralph Milbanke. He first proposed marriage, through the offices of his close confidant, Lady Melbourne, in October - but was rebuffed. Their correspondence continued, however, despite Annabella's comment that she 'would not enter into a family where there is a strong tendency to insanity'. Byron's father had been universally known as 'Mad Jack'. Annabella would not be the first, nor the last, young lady lured into marriage believing that she could 'reform' her husband; furthermore the poet was famed for his good looks! Simultaneously with his pursuit of Annabella, Byron was entering into a liason with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. In April 1814 the latter gave birth to a daughter widely believed to be his. To end the rumours circulating about them Augusta urged her lover/half-brother to marry and, in September, he re-proposed to miss Milbanke who, surprizingly, accepted him. Their marriage of just over one year commenced on January 2nd, 1815.
Soon after their honeymoon the young couple were invited to stay with Augusta. According to Annabella's later account (to Harriet Beecher Stowe) her new husband 'treated his sister with a liberty which both shocked and surprized her. Seeing her amazement and alarm, he came up to her and said, in a sneering tone, "I suppose you perceive that you are not wanted here. Go to your own room, and leave us alone. We can amuse overselves better without you'' '. Byron soon confided that he wanted an 'open' marriage, with both partners free to take lovers. Additionally, Annabella had to cope with her husband's heavy drinking and the black moods occasioned by his debts. She clearly thought he was going insane. When she began to wonder aloud about leaving him, Byron's riposte - again, according to lady Byron - was that 'The world will believe me, and it will not believe you'. He was conducting an affair at this time with a London chorus girl, Susan Boyce.
The Byrons made their marital home at 13, Piccadilly Terrace, London (where they were periodically visited by Augusta). Annabella gave birth to the couple's only child, Augusta Ada, on December 10th and -a month later - visited her parents (who had never cared for the marriage) in Leicestershire. On hearing her story they forbade their daughter to see Byron again. Legal action to obtain a separation were initiated. On the 18th March, 1816, Byron composed the verses featured above and mailed them to his estranged wife two days later.
Either as an attempt at reconciliation, or as one of self-justification, 'Fare thee well' was, almost magnificently, ill-judged. Byron had fifty copies printed for private circulation in early April, and one of these - together with a copy of 'A Sketch', in which Byron attacks Annabella's childhood nurse, Mrs Clermont, for allegedly raising her in a cold manner- fell into the hands of the lawyer, Henry Brougham. Although Brougham - who'd previously criticised the peer's literary style in print - was supposed to be an impartial mediator in the separation, he had the two poems published (together with a devastating personal commentary) in The Champion (April 14th). The effect of the two poems was to throw public opinion - for the most part- behind Annabella, though 'Fare thee well' caused Byron's royal fan, the princess Caroline, to claim it made her 'cry like a fool'.
Opprobrium failed to dissuade their originator from reprinting the verses in his Poems later that year. By that time he'd been forced to sign separation papers (on April 21st). The version printed in Poems had some small revisions and is prefaced by a quote from Coleridge's 'Christabel'.
A draft manuscript of 'Fare thee well' survives, showing numerous crossings-out and ammendments -characteristic of the poet's usual compositional style. Until fairly recently it was believed that ink blots on the verso were tear stains. Byron also habitually wrote with the aid of a rhyming dictionary.
Perhaps the nearest to an objective view of the marital breakdown -and subsequent scandal - comes from John Hobhouse (a long-term friend of Byron's whom we might expect to have been biased against Annabella). Hobhouse came to believe that the poet had 'been guilty of a very great tyranny - menaces - furies- neglect, and even real injuries...in fact turning her out of the house'. To this charge-sheet was added: 'locking doors, showing pistols, pouring reproaches on her in bed...' Annabella's maid, Ann Rood Fletcher, testified to several instances of what appear to have been attempted marrital rape. There are strong grounds to believe that Byron attempted to sodomise his, highly religious, wife.
Post-separation, and in the eight years that remained to him, Byron became extremely embittered towards his erstwhile spouse, describing her as a 'moral Clytemnestra'. He sailed from England on 25th April for a self-imposed exile (after being 'dropped' by much of fashionable society). The occasion was commemorated by a scurrilous George Cruikshank caricature. After various wanderings around Europe the poet embraced the cause of Greek independence and would die in that country of a fever, his sufferings exacerbated by the over-enthusiastic application of 'bleedings' from his physicians. He was destined never to see his country, his sister, his daughter or Annabella again.
Annabella would survive until the age of 67, devoting herself to philanthropic causes but plagued by ill-health. She'd clung to the illusion that Byron would return to her, imploring forgiveness. She even penned a retort to 'Fare thee well', 'By thee forsaken':
But it must come -thine hour of tears,/ When self-adoring pride shall bow-/ And thou shalt own my 'blighted years',/ The fate that thou inflictest -Thou!/ Thy virtue- but from ruin still/ Shall rise a wan and drooping peace,/ With pardon for unmeasured ill,/ And Pity's tears -if love must cease!
Eisler, B., Byron, Child of Passion, Fool of Fame, Hamish Hamilton (1999)
MacCarthy, F., Byron, Life and Legend, John Murray (2002)
McGann, J. [Ed.], Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, Clarendon (1993)
Nicholson,A., The Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics, vol. 12, Garland (1998)
Stowe, H., Lady Byron Vindicated, Fields Osgood (1870)
Kevin Saving © 2009