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A Lesson from poetry on my 36th Birthday

Updated: Mar 9, 2023

Dante opens his Divine Comedy with these now famous lines “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita!” I do not speak Italian, but I love saying these lines aloud. “In the middle of the journey of our life.” For better or worse, Western Literature has taken reflection upon life as a central theme connecting the journeys of many of its great heroes and villains.


I woke up today in a similar “middle of the journey” (according to a medievalist!) Today, I am 36. Reflecting on my life and on the lives I have known—both real and imaginary—is a regular part of my day. In conversing with people over the years, I have often wondered how many of them truly reflect and contemplate as I do. Am I alone in a world I did not make? Certainly, everyone dwells on their own life, but how many journey and churn; how many compare and contrast, question and examine? Dante traversed Hell and Purgatory to find his Heaven, and I fear many of those I have met are trapped in one or the other.


I have read that literature cannot solve any of one's problems. If you are unmarried, reading a book will not likely produce children. But it can be a salve to problems, so it is said. This is the view of literature as the great therapist. This seems to be a popular view, not merely from Freud but Emerson, Thoreau and many others.


I disagree.


While literature can act as the concerned therapist eyeing a distraught patient, this perspective belittles what a serious exploration of literature can do for you.


Literature is a guide to life—both good and bad. It can guide you to dark places. As Goethe’s novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther seems to demonstrate, with a slew of copycat suicides. There is no guarantee that any author has conjured an accurate image of life and existence. One thing I can say is this. If you are reading a work of a certain age, you can rest assured that the author has conjured a more clear image of some aspect of life than you.


I do not intend any disrespect to my readers. This is the nature of great artistry. These artists have captured some aspect of reality, whether from pure fancy or from observing reality properly or from a misconstrued imagining.

A poem that has been on my mind lately, for obvious reasons, is “On This Day I Complete My 36th Year,” By Lord Byron.


Byron had led a life full of passionate love affairs. He was known as “Mad, bad and very dangerous to know,” particularly to women. In his mid 30s he turned from love affairs to fighting. He wished to fight for Greece’s independence. In this poem, half lament and half clarion call, he exclaims that while he has now left behind the age where passionate love can take root, he will dedicate his remaining moments on earth to a cause greater than himself.


The Greeks were at the time under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Byron provided financial assistance and turned both his pen and his sword to the cause.


The details of this fight are less important to me now then the resonance of this poem. I will share it here. Please, as my birthday present, read this poem aloud to yourself. I will comment after.


On this Day I Complete my Thirty-Sixth Year


'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,

Since others it hath ceased to move:

Yet though I cannot be beloved,

Still let me love!


My days are in the yellow leaf;

The flowers and fruits of Love are gone;

The worm—the canker, and the grief

Are mine alone!


The fire that on my bosom preys

Is lone as some Volcanic Isle;

No torch is kindled at its blaze

A funeral pile.


The hope, the fear, the jealous care,

The exalted portion of the pain

And power of Love I cannot share,

But wear the chain.


But 'tis not thus—and 'tis not here

Such thoughts should shake my Soul, nor now,

Where Glory decks the hero's bier,

Or binds his brow.


The Sword, the Banner, and the Field,

Glory and Greece around us see!

The Spartan borne upon his shield

Was not more free.


Awake (not Greece—she is awake!)

Awake, my Spirit! Think through whom

Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake

And then strike home!


Tread those reviving passions down

Unworthy Manhood—unto thee

Indifferent should the smile or frown

Of beauty be.


If thou regret'st thy Youth, why live?

The land of honourable Death

Is here:—up to the Field, and give

Away thy breath!


Seek out—less often sought than found—

A Soldier's Grave, for thee the best;

Then look around, and choose thy Ground,

And take thy rest.



He opens by saying that now on his 36th Birthday, he should cease all this romantic love stuff; not due to a lack of desire, but due to his view that perhaps his ability to move others to love him has passed.


'Tis time this heart should be unmoved,

Since others it hath ceased to move:

Yet though I cannot be beloved,

Still let me love!


He does still seem to cry out behind his doubts of attaining true love that it may be still available to him one day: “still let me love!” I admit a complete sympathy for his lament here. I have loved many women in my life and yet on my 36th Birthday, I remain unloved. I must face an aged face that may no longer inspire belovedness.


He goes on to say that his life is in its autumn time “My days are in the yellow leaf.” Unsaid is that next is winter, or old age and death, where no fruit can grow. This is not the springtime of a fecund and virile human. To him remains only “the worm—the canker and the grief / Are mine alone.”


Depressing. I have learned, however, that it is best to accept another’s emotions as fact, and seek to alter the thoughts that lead to those feelings, when possible. This is true of oneself. For, I too have experienced the feeling that grief alone is all I have remaining to me. I feel it heavy upon me as I write this now. As another poet writes “of one to me / Little remains.”


Byron then discusses the fire in his bosom, comparing it to a volcano on a lone island. (Do yourself a favor and go watch the Pixar short animation called “Lava.”) Byron, like myself and probably like many who read this now, have experienced an intensity of passion and expression within the heart, but that then dissipated in an unsatisfying blank desertion. This is loneliness. Though Byron was a great poet whose poems touched many hearts, he felt “no torch is kindled at its blaze.” Despite all his effort, no single person seemed alighted by his efforts. I cannot help but think that if one of the world’s greatest poets lit no fires, what can I hope for?


Youthful love can best be described by this phrase “the exalted portion of the pain.” Exalted pain is right. Byron has left behind that age where the mere thought of his love brings to his torso a rumbling pain worse than any heartburn. It twists and turns at anything that reminds one of this love—and everything is a reminder. It’s the pain that constricts the throat but sharpens the mind to a focal point as small as a pin with only the face of one's beloved in view. At the end of his 35 years on earth, that kind of love was like wearing a chain.


Here his thoughts take a turn.


But 'tis not thus—and 'tis not here

Such thoughts should shake my Soul, nor now,

Where Glory decks the hero's bier,

Or binds his brow.


He now believes those thoughts were childish and not fit for a hero. To him, during this fight for Greece, glory and sacrificial death take a grander place than childish romances. Here on the field of battle “Glory and Greece” are watching him.


His lustful experiences in youth must be transformed into a beacon for his glory and Greece’s return to glory—one that spans the millenia to Achilles and Ajax, Orestes and Antigone.


Awake (not Greece—she is awake!)

Awake, my Spirit! Think through whom

Thy life-blood tracks its parent lake

And then strike home!


Here in this hallowed land of sacrifice he should be indifferent to young beautiful women “unto thee indifferent should the smile or frown of beauty be.


If his youthful indiscretions are to lead to something worthwhile, he must die an honorable death for a righteous cause. This will give his life meaning. “Give away thy breath” he says. It will not be breath exhaled in orgasmic pleasure, but rather a spirit that leaves his body as he dies for a cause greater than himself.


At this point, you may be asking “Kirk! What is the lesson from poetry you have learned on your birthday?” I understand your frustration, for I feel it as well. I do not have a simple lesson like many of the so-called “self-help” gurus of our day. Perhaps, the process of making clearer what was once fuzzy is the lesson.


You will find here no listicles of 36 lessons on my way to 36. I think such exercises are inane and futile. Here, however, is one lesson I have learned ‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita: The more practiced I am at achieving clarity of life through art, the better I am able to control the direction of my own journey.


I sincerely love this poem by Byron. So much of it connects with my true feelings of my life at this moment. I do wonder if I will ever be beloved or if I will spark a single torch in the heart of another; maybe dying for a grand cause is all that I have remaining to me.


Yet, just as a polaroid comes into view, I can see an image here that I do not believe is the whole picture.


I have a literary author in my life that Byron did not. He had the ancients and the medievalists and the renaissance artists and even the romantics (of which he was one) but he did not have the one that he needed most. I do: Ayn Rand.


Her image of a man traversing Hell and Purgatory and arriving at Heaven is Howard Roark. He too felt the same loneliness but it only went so deep. With Byron his fight and eventual death for Greece was a last spark of a dying flame, for Roark his spark grew into a conflagration. As Rand puts it:


Do not let your fire go out, spark by irreplaceable spark in the hopeless swamps of the not-quite, the not-yet, and the not-at-all. Do not let the hero in your soul perish in lonely frustration for the life you deserved and have never been able to reach. The world you desire can be won. It exists.. it is real.. it is possible.. it's yours.


In my darkest moments I do not believe her hopeful message can possibly be anything other than escapism. It just can’t be true. The psychologist Jordan Peterson claims that “life is suffering.” He and Byron are true bosom pals. And sometimes I wonder if they are correct.


As the dust settles and I can see more and more clearly, I am able to best judge the veracity of all these high moral choices given to me. It would be easy for me to default to the negative, and choose the path of sacrifice. But I choose Rand’s view.


“The purpose of morality is to teach you, not to suffer and die, but to enjoy yourself and live."


Here is to much more than 36 more years of adventure, passion, and love—here’s to life.





The Reception Lord Byron at Missolonghi by Theodoros Vryzakis









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