Daily Archives: May 14, 2009

No freedom to fight for

I’m only going to talk about the first line of this untitled poem by Lord Byron, but it’s short enough that there’s no good reason not to quote the whole thing.

When a man hath no freedom to fight for at home,
Let him combat for that of his neighbours;
Let him think of the glories of Greece and of Rome,
And get knock’d on the head for his labours.
To do good to mankind is the chivalrous plan,
And is always as nobly requited;
Then battle for freedom wherever you can,
And, if not shot or hang’d, you’ll get knighted.

There’s much to like in this little ditty — it’s clever and quotable — but for me it’s that first line that’s the real stroke of genius, and an excellent example of what poetry is all about: namely, using language in such a way that its surface characteristics (rhyme and rhythm most obviously, but also syntactic and lexical quirks) harmonize with, reinforce, and even add to the meaning it conveys.

“When a man hath no freedom to…” sounds like it’s talking about a man whose freedom is limited — another way of saying “When a man is not free to…” — and you expect it to be followed by a verb phrase indicating what he is not free to do. When the next words are “fight for,” another possible interpretation become salient (it would be the only interpretation if the clause ended there), but the first is still possible. (You might say, for example, that a man who has been barred from military service, “hath no freedom to fight for his country.”) It’s not until “fight for” is followed by “at home,” rather than by the noun object that the first interpretation requires, that the reader is forced to reanalyze the syntax, realizing that “freedom to fight for” is actually a phrase of the same type as “work to do” or “new worlds to conquer.”

Byron’s got the right idea, but in my opinion he doesn’t lead the reader far enough down the garden path before forcing the syntactic reframe. If I were Byron, I would have put a line break between “fight” and “for,” and then followed “for” with something which the reader could misinterpret as being its object. Here’s how I might have written the first stanza:

It is said when a man has no freedom to fight
For his country and people and home and birthright
Will all lose their appeal. Then crusading he goes
To win other men’s freedom from other men’s foes.

The garden path, whether my version or Byron’s, isn’t there just for the hell of it, but is central to the meaning of the poem. After getting the mistaken idea that we’re talking about a man who lacks freedom, the reader realizes, with at least a little bit of subconscious surprise, that, no, the man in question actually has no freedom to fight for — which means that he does have freedom, as much freedom as he could possibly want, that he is in no danger of losing it, and that he is therefore not free to fight for… wait, how’s that again? The lack of freedom we encountered on the garden path comes back to get us.

Because people — some people, anyway — don’t just want freedom, they want the experience of fighting for freedom. Maybe Greece needed Byron, but it’s much more obvious that Byron needed Greece; and if we ever have a world where all people everywhere are granted freedom and liberty, the Byrons of the world will be going crazy, itching for a fight, and feeling — however paradoxical it may seem — unfree.

The dynamic Byron described is very clearly at work in the modern West — not only in the obvious case of the American neocons fighting for Iraqi democracy, but in that of pampered classes in any number of countries agitating on behalf of their local oppressed (or not-so-oppressed) minorities. Trying to write something of my own in the spirit of Byron’s first line, I came up with the following:

How the masses grew restless and got out of hand
In their anger at having no rights to demand!

1 Comment

Filed under Literature