“mad, bad and dangerous to know”

Lady Caroline Lamb, who was enthralled with Byron said he was “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know.”  George Gordon, Lord Byron is one of the canonical “six-pack” of British Romantic poets composed of himself, Blake, Keats, Coleridge, Shelley, and Wordsworth.  Byron was radically left in his politics and he lived large—spending money, dueling and getting more ass than a toilet seat.  Lord Byron

His book-length poem, “Child Harold’s Pilgrimage”  contains a section worthy of consideration for the best poem about the ocean.  You could say the best “pelagic” poem. This section is known as the “Apostrophe to the Ocean.” An apostrophe, besides being a punctuation mark, is a poem that addresses an object or other non-human thing.  This differentiates it from an ode because an ode is written in praise of something and uses elevated language.  The first five lines are rather famous and often quoted or paraphrased in movies:

                        There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

                        There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

                        There is society, where none intrudes,

                        By the deep sea, and music in its roar;

                        I love man the less, but nature more.

This is a perfect example of a misanthropic duality putting nature on one side and society on the other. It is wilderness with a capital “W,” signifying a liminal realm more than an ecosystem.  Generations later Robinson Jeffers gives the thought some talons when he writes

                        Avoid the reeking herd,

                        shun the polluted flock,

                        live like the stoic bird,

                        the eagle on the rock. 

This schism between wilderness and society, once felt, tends to be awkward to reconcile. Since time spent sailing or mountaineering is time spent away from petty bullshit it can be difficult to transition back to the world of HMOs and cranky DMV employees.  

            At any rate, the lines that make this the best pelagic poem are


                        Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean—roll!

                        Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

                       Man marks the earth with ruin—his control

                        stops with the shore. . . .


And when a ship sinks,

          He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,

          without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.


I love the repetition and word choice (diction) of that last line.  The repetition of vowel sounds is called assonance, and the “o” sounds—low frequency assonance—gives it a mournful sound and the commas create pauses that ensure the pace of the line is slow while emphasizing the words.  Here is the utter indifference of the ocean.  Like a black hole, those who die at sea are quenched with no ceremony and no trace.  If Bryon had lived to see oil-platforms would he still think “his control/stops at the shore?”  Probably.  I’ve seen a slab avalanche, slept on a groaning glacier and been ambushed by thunderstorm at 14,000 feet.  None of these caused the sheer awe in me as the time I crossed from Santa Cruz island to Santa Barbara in winds over fifty knots, breaking waves, and a sea so large we lost sight of the horizon at times.  It is this beauty of the ocean, and this power that Byron pays homage to in this poem. And this is why the ocean will always be a place for folks who are “mad, bad and dangerous to know.”

te vaya bien

te vaya bien

link to the whole poem:

Published in: on April 1, 2009 at 7:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

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