‘So, we’ll go no more a roving’

So, we’ll go no more a roving
So late into the night,
Though the heart be still as loving,
And the moon be still as bright.

For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul wears out the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.

Though the night was made for loving,
And the day returns too soon,
Yet we’ll go no more a roving
By the light of the moon.

Let’s start at the beginning. The beginning of each line, that is. If you ignore the rest for now, this is what you’re left with:

So…
So…
Though…
And…
For…
And…
And…
And…
Though…
And…
Yet…
By…

It’s a pretty restless sequence, especially the sequence of ‘and…and…and’ which rattles through the second stanza. And the poem is now empty of content. All the words are conjunctions, linking words. There are no nouns at the starts of lines, no adjectives, no verbs.

Let’s compare this to the placid opening of Keat’s ‘To Autumn’:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun,
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run.

(OK, I cheated a bit with the last line, but the emphasis falls heavily on ‘fruit’). See how you could almost tell a story from the first words alone? There’s a subject (‘season’), qualified by an adjective (‘close’) performing a verb (‘conspiring’) involving something else (‘with fruit’). The sense is confused, but the poem is clearly describing things that are out there doing stuff.

In contrast, the emphasis at the start of each of Byron’s lines isn’t on things, or appearances, or on actions, but on thinking. Not controlled logical thinking. It doesn’t move from ‘if’ to ‘then’ to ‘therefore’. It’s a string of ‘and’ and ‘though’ and ‘yet’ – a disordered tumble of ideas punctuated by changes of mind.

This poem is not like a classical sonnet which has one idea, then an opposed idea, and then a resolution. The paradox which drives this poem is one which it doesn’t attempt to solve. It’s between the stated conclusion at the beginning that ‘we’ll go no more a roving’ and the feeling that roving is actually a jolly fine thing to do. We’re listening to someone trying to convince themselves of something they don’t believe. The poem works just because its conclusion is so unconvincing (the last line doesn’t even scan properly).

Pleasure here comes not from seeing a paradox unfolded and then cleverly resolved, but from the poem’s to-ing and fro-ing. This is what gives it power. The excitement comes from a sense of sturm und drang (storm and struggle), a little like in Mozart’s late symphonies which are full of frequent changes of mood and direction. We enjoy the intimation of suppressed energy, of a wild will to go a roving that no argument can override.

The simple verse form helps us to savour this tension. Without enjambment, sense and line endings overlap. This helps us to keep track of changes of direction and mood. Almost like bars in music, they provide a rigid framework which is imposed on this restless thinking. That sense of strained control provides another source of tension.

How does the poem make roving seem fun? Partly in the cluster of nouns, adjectives and verbs at the ends of lines. Two of these (half)-rhyme words are repeated in the course of the poem: ‘roving’ and ‘loving’. We also find ‘night’ and ‘bright’, ‘sheath’ and ‘breathe’, ‘breast’ and ‘rest’, ‘soon’, and ‘moon’. These are words you’d use in a story of adventure and romance, not a promise to stay at home and be good. No wonder the third stanza begins with the thought that ‘the night was made for loving, / And the day returns too soon’ .

Because of its psychological complexity this poem is like a miniature dramatic monologue. Its quibbles and qualifications are also reminiscent of the to-and-fro Shakespeare uses in Hamlet’s soliloquys. But who is speaking? We’re left with no clues about context or character. Because of this it’s tempting to identify the speaker with Byron himself. This is part of how Byron was able to create his own myth. Not that he ever stopped roving, of course. But who with a heart ‘still loving’ would?

Tags: discovering poetry, Lord Byron