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?