Lord Byron’s pro-war poem?

This untitled poem was written by Lord Byron in 1820:

 

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,

Let him combat for that of his neighbors;

Let him think of the glories of Greece and Rome,

And get knocked on his head for his labors.

 

To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,

And is always nobly requited;

Then battle for freedom wherever you can,

And, if not shot or hanged, you’ll get knighted.

 

 

 

 

I’m not sure how to decipher this poem’s tone—is it a patriotic poem, or an anti-war poem? Irony and ambivalence are clearly present, but so is a world-weary affirmation to nevertheless do one’s duty in support of freedom and one’s highest ideals.

 

Byron, it should be recalled, died in Greece, having gone there to join in the country’s fight for independence, so the subject of this poem was not abstract to him.

 

Is the tension within the poem—pro-war v. anti-war—precisely what makes it interesting? I find the fourth line and the eighth line quite jarring, as if taking back the lines that preceed them. They strike me as caustic, and yet not quite decisive for a conclusive interpretation. Perhaps somebody has some other thoughts about the meaning of this poem?

 

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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11 Responses to Lord Byron’s pro-war poem?

  1. aunty dawkins says:

    Santi
    Found another of your little gems here and at the risk of being over-exposed on this blog at the moment cannot resist a brief comment.
    I think I detect a fair amount of cynicism lurking in these lines. A light mocking and possible self mocking of do gooders who look for a cause to espouse. There is a hint of serve them right if they get a knock on the head in search of unclearly motivated generalised abstract idealism. Is ‘chivalrous’ a suitable word for genuine human altruism? It seems too trivial. Battling for freedom will undoubtedly be the right thing to be seen to do and undoubtely bring rewards if one is lucky.

  2. julia says:

    The tone of this poem is ironic. You can tell by the lines “get knocked on his head for his labors” and “if not shot or hanged you’ll get knighted” He deals lightly with the costs of fighting in war. “Knocked on his head” is a light, humorous way of referring to serious injury (you can tell the tone is humorous also by the way the rhymes sound). If you survive getting shot or hanged then you’ll get knighted. This is meant to be funny.

    He is mocking those who seek out adventure and involve themselves in wars that they really have no reason to be involved in.

    The supreme irony, of course, is that Byron died fighting for the Greek army against the Turks–a war he entered for the adventure.

  3. Penn Hackney says:

    Thank you for finding and commenting on these these delightful lines.

    I think the fourth and eighth lines make it impossible to read this gem as anything other than totally sarcastic. “Combat for that of his neighbors” reminds me of the American adventures in Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Afghanistan, and Iraq (not all outcomes are negative but certainly all are ambiguous), and suggesting that the glories of [ancient] Greece and Rome are to be remiagined or imitated by modern [1820] warfare is surely ironic.

    “Chivalrous” was indeed a high ideal (in the middle ages, of which Byron was very fond), but the word has considerable mockery in its placement here, especially since one’s efforts at “chivalry” are most definitely NOT “alsways nobly requited.”

    It’s a devastatingly anti-war piece, despite Byron’s own later decision to invest and fight in Greece (one can decide it’s necessary to enter a particular arena even if one does not approve of all arena sports – and adding to the sting of these lines is the result of Byron’s own efforts in Greece), although I’ll admit my interpretation is colored by first hearing these lines spoken to brilliant effect by the eponymous protagonist of the movie “Breaker Morant.”

    Thus I believe the ambivalence of tone ultimately resolves itself into a mordant sarcasm. Compare these lines with the sarcastic tone of many stanzas of “Don Juan”, and contrast them with the equally casual but clearly serious tone of “On this Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year.”

  4. mondy says:

    owwwwsome ….still in need for mre comments to get the idea 🙂

  5. Anonymous says:

    I think it’s significant that this is the poem quoted by Harry (Breaker) Morant (Edward Woodward) in Beresford’s anti-war masterpiece, “Breaker Morant,” prior to the climactic news about his sentence at the hands of a military court. In the context of that film (which I’d recommend to anyone contemplating these issues), the poem is brutally ironic.

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  7. Bob Robertson says:

    I have heard this poem recited only once, in the movie Breaker Morant, toward then end when the protagonists were being set up to be executed.

    So while we can discuss Byron’s intent, one cannot escape that the meaning has been recognized as both sarcastic and ironic by more than just ourselves.

  8. Paul Haynie says:

    I think you are asking the wrong question, and Byron’s biography bears me out. The poem is supposed to BALANCED, to see both sides of the coin simultaneously without actually judging between them. “I am fully aware of the absurdity of what I do, yet find I must do it anyway.”

    • William says:

      I would suggest Byron never intended balance. He didn’t really ‘do it’ (the heroic martial ideal) – his brief involvement with military heroics was largely a hasty reaction to boredom which, benefit of hindsight and all that… Mostly he partied and sneered and skipped the country when it got a bit bumpy. And his taste in absurd behaviour was generally guided his own sense of humour, not an imposed sense of duty. Don’t get me wrong – love the guy…but if he says patriotism, wait for the punchline… 🙂

  9. William says:

    Left scratching my head here… First found this rhyme about 30 years ago. Never once second-guessed or over-analysed… It’s pure Byron…mischief, dark humour, bit arrogant and superior. Pro-war, tension, balance? Considering his relationship with the society he lived in, this is just a little poke in the ribs of the establishment…and a funny one 🙂 He is fully aware of the absurdity of the world he must live in and be judged by, and openly teases one aspect of the traditional values – Empire, patriotism, heroism etc.

    Terry Pratchett hits a similar tone with the idea that a general should not be judged by how many battles he won, but how many soldiers died. Which side the soldiers were on isn’t important, as long as they didn’t include Anyone Important. But you can hardly boast about an epic victory if there were only 5 or 6 dead – the key to glory and your portrait on a wall is to get the big numbers! Another fairly dark jab, similar targets, and suspiciously consistent with historical records…

    I’ve just written more words about a poem than there are in the poem…feeling a little touch of shame…the day I left school I swore I’d never do that again.

    Different poet, different question? Every year or so I go online and type ‘Yeats Michael Robartes anagram’. No article ever appears explaining that little word game. I can’t be the only person who spotted Michael Robartes’ real name… I assume this is known but for some reason nobody let Google in on the secret? 22 years it’s been annoying me…lol. Someone tell me everyone knows that one?

  10. William says:

    Oh, pro-war poem? This may be one of the most clean-cut examples… I won’t criticise because the subject is The Old Contemptibles – British professional soldiers. They worked for wages before conscription..hence ‘mercenaries’. By the end of the first year of World War I they had as many dead as their total strength before the war….maybe one in 20 served the whole war…the rest died or were sent home to heal.

    ‘Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’

    These, in the day when heaven was falling,
    The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
    Followed their mercenary calling
    And took their wages and are dead.

    Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
    They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
    What God abandoned, these defended,
    And saved the sum of things for pay.

    A E Housman

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