September 12, 2012 “They Say That Hope is Happiness” by Lord Byron

September 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Lord Byron

They Say That Hope is Happiness

(Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas –Virgil)

Lord Byron

1

They say that Hope is happiness—
But genuine Love must prize the past;
And mem’ry wakes the thoughts that bless
They rose the first—they set the last.

2
And all that mem’ry loves the most
Was once our only hope to be:
And all that hope adored and lost
Hath melted into memory.

3

Alas! it is delusion all—
The future cheats us from afar,
Nor can we be what we recall,
Nor dare we think on what we are.

Lord Byron, 1816

I stumbled upon this poem after flipping through the poet’s Hebrew Melodies, a series of poems Byron wrote and set to music with his friend Isaac Nathan, a British Jewish composer. Byron, ever the rebel, not only collaborated with a devout Jew at a time when this was taboo in British society, but indulged Jewish themes in his Melodies. This poem ends the series, and in a rather clever way.

The poem begins with an epigraph from Virgil, which translates to “Happy is he who has been able to learn the causes of things.” This sentiment, with its emphasis on experience and knowledge, is in stark contrast to the title’s innocent optimism of hope. Byron has already indicated he will be mocking the “hope is happiness” concept by designating it as something “they say.”

The superficial message is simple. Happiness doesn’t come from hoping for the future, because all of the hopes we have had have either failed, or if they have been achieved, have faded into mere memory. He even goes further than simply denigrating the happiness of hope. Every phase of time, whether past, present, or future is “delusion.” It seems there is no hope for happiness at all.

While this is Byron’s seemingly depressing resolution, a theme consistent with the Romantics’ notion of loss of innocence, he does give us some beautiful poetry. I love how in the second stanza he uses personification and capitalization to give us the warm image of “Memory” as an active lover, only to revert this personification back into the cold, abstract noun that feels so distant, as memory often does.

For further pessimism, the narrator sees memory as the ultimate catch-22 of human experience. Not only does memory remind us of all of our lost hopes, but all of our happy memories are just that- memories, that can’t be relived, since we “can never be what we recall.”

If there is any hope for happiness in a poem about how hope isn’t happiness, it seems we can find it in the first stanza, wherein the narrator meditates on the goodness of memory before he takes a turn to negative-town.  “Love prizes the past,” he says, and “mem’ry wakes the thoughts that bless.” In other words, the past, rather than the future and hope, is the seat of love and goodness.

Even though it seems at face value a very pessimistic poem which only offers a few glimpses of positivity, there is much more to it.

What Byron cleverly does in “They Say That Hope is Happiness” is use the structure of his poem as a microcosm of his message. The poem is demarcated very definitively into two sections by the punctuation of the colon in line 6. The first section, from beginning to the colon, is hopeful and optimistic, and evokes feelings of happiness in the reader. The second is the complete opposite- pessimistic and depressing, and full of longing for the misbegotten hope of the previous six lines.

The act of reading the poem, then, is an experience of the narrator’s message. We start off hopeful and optimistic, but as we continue reading that hope soon becomes a memory. Byron pokes fun at his reader and boasts of his cleverness as he says “nor dare we think on what we are,” knowing that some readers will miss the meaning of the poem and the way he has manipulated his readers. For those who will think on “what we are,” they will take the time not only to digest the meaning of the poem, but to think on how the structure of the poem has influenced their conclusions.

If we take his message, then, and look to the “past” of the poem (the not-too-distant first six lines) for “thoughts that bless,” we go back to thoughts of hopeful happiness- thoughts that the poem is going to espouse a happy message by the end. Remember, everything up until the colon of the second stanza was priming us for a happy poem experience. And I, for one, was happy back then, back in those six lines full of hope. Thus, we have learned, through the clever structure of Byron’s poem, that hope is indeed happiness, at least in our experience of reading this poem.

Now, to further uncover his message, we must ask ourselves- Is Byron “one of them” who preaches things like “hope is happiness”? Is he saying that words- what people say, or how they put together a poem- are “delusions,” like the way public speakers can delude people with pathos or ethos? Isn’t Byron one of the “they”- one of the people who tells us how to think?

Hope and memory aren’t just tricks of the mind- they are tricks of the trade for public speakers, writers and of course, poets! Another great example of the “they” that use abstractions like “hope” and “memory” to influence people in communications are our politicians (see the use of the word “hope” in the last election cycle if you feel like targeting the Democrats, or see the way Republicans reconstruct “memory” if you lean to the left)

Perhaps happiness isn’t hope after all, or memory either, but rather “thinking on what we are”- thinking of the ways we are manipulated and tricked and deceived, not just by memory and hope in our own minds, but by formats and structures that deliver and serve us these packaged and manipulated memories and hopes. Memory and hope are deceptive enough within our own heads- how much more lethal can they be in the hands of someone else with an agenda?

“Thinking on what we are” is true happiness. Knowledge of the self, in other words, gives us truth, which leads us to happiness. And yet true self-reflection and observation of ourselves in the present is so fleeting, as Byron, describes it as “daring” to do so.

The epigraph says it all- true happiness comes from knowing the causes of things. If we knew the causes of things, we would have honest assessments of the past (not swayed by the unreliability of memory), a rational approach to the future (not allured by the fallacies of blind hope), and functionality in the present.

At the very least, understanding the causes of things will help you know what just happened to you when you simply read this poem…

Very clever, Byron.

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