A Book of Answers IX: Neptune And Byron


I thought so when I was a boy and learned it by heart, and I still think the conclusion to Byron’s Childe Harold magnificent. The vulgar confusion of lie and lay is an embarrassment, but it was probably not such a solecism at the time as it became later. Jane Austen made the same slip in Sense and Sensibility. It was after finding that it was impossible to sit on the delightful beaches of the Algarve without getting fouled with pellets of ships’ oil and disgusted by the garbage strewed about by tourists that I meditated the Ocean’s reply.

Lord Byron To The Ocean

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 not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express—yet cannot all conceal.

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; upon thy watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deeds, nor doth remain
A shadow of man’s ravage, save his own,
When for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan—
Without a grave—unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

His steps are not upon thy paths,—thy fields
Are not a spoil for him,—thou dost arise
And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields
For earth’s destruction thou dost all despise,
Spurning him from thy bosom to the skies—
And send’st him, shivering in thy playful spray
And howling, to his Gods, where haply lies
His petty hope in some near port or bay,
And dashest him again to Earth:—there let him lay.

The Ocean To Lord Byron

Two centuries, my lord, have well-nigh passed
Since you addressed that epilogue to me.
What are two centuries?—I shall outlast
Man and his works,—on that we both agree.
One thing it lacked, your grand apostrophe,
Sonorous as my billows in their roll:
Had you possessed the gift of prophecy,
You might have been less sure that man’s control
Stops with the shore,—his ruin now runs from pole to pole.

There’s pleasure in those pathless woods no more;
The woods themselves are cut for pulp or scrap.
As for the raptures of the lonely shore,
Pick any place you like upon the map,—
The tourist trade has caught it—view the lap
Of Ocean ankle-deep in trash and cans.
Nor can the deep sea music match the crap
Belched from transistors. Time and circumstance
Wreak havoc and spread wastes less horrible than man’s.

You were dead right in eighteen seventeen,
But look around you now, my lord, and weep!
Man marks the earth with garbage; when the scene
Becomes too noisome, even for him to keep,
He sinks it, like his sewage, in the deep.
Oil from his ships befouls the sea-nymph’s breast;
Sludge from his mills across the sea-floors sweep;
The filthiest animal and the greediest beast
Is Man: he fouls his own and every creature’s nest.

The earth he makes his universal stye,
And now the sea his wallow and his spoil;
His fishing grounds breed poison; sea-birds die
Their feathers with detergents gummed or oil;
The great whales, slaughtered till the oceans boil
With blood,—whole species vanish day by day—
Last, his own victim, caught in his own coil,
He drowns in his foul effluents. As you say:—
With a fine scorn of grammar too—There let him lay!

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