Below, you’ll find an analysis of Lord Byron’s poem ‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’.
‘On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year’ is a poem from a private diary entry, and so perhaps only ever intended for Byron to explore his own private thoughts and inner psychology. However, as he was about to go into battle and expected to die and attain the status of a hero, it could also be said that he intended the poem to be found and published after his death.
This analysis is tailored towards IGCSE, GCSE, and A-Level students, but it’s useful for anyone studying the poem at any level (including the CIE / Cambridge, WJEC / Eduqas, Edexcel, OCR, and CCEA exam boards).
Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full courses here:
The Poem + Analysis
January 22nd, 1824 Missolonghi (Greece)
’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.
To get a PDF document of a complete analysis, click here.
’Tis — it is (colloquial, conversational)
Unmoved — not bothered, not emotionally disturbed
Hath — has
Ceased to move — been unable to affect / stopped affecting
Yet — but
Beloved — loved by someone
Canker — rot, disease
Bosom — chest, breast
Lone — alone, lonely
Isle — island
Kindled — set alight and encouraged to burn, as in with firewood
Funeral pile — a pile of wood that a corpse is burned on top of
Exalted — in a high position, high status, or extreme happiness
Thus — this way
Bier — a frame that coffins or corpses are placed on
Binds — wraps up tightly
Tread down — step heavily upon
Manhood — masculinity, the condition of being a man
Thou regret’st — you regret
Honourable — bringing or deserving honour
Unto thee — to you
Indifferent — not affected, not bothered
The speaker says that it’s time for his heart to stop being so emotional since it has failed to affect the hearts of others (either through love or by being inspirational). (Stanza 2) His days are in the season of Autumn, where the vibrancy of life is fading. He has lost the flowers and fruits of love, and now he only has the worm and rot to look forward to — images of death and decay. (Stanza 3) The fire that takes hold of his chest is lonely as if it were an isolated volcano on an island. No one goes to set light to a torch there, it is like a funeral pile that will burn only to destroy his own body. (Stanza 4) He feels a range of extreme emotions — hope, fear, jealousy that springs from caring, uplifting pain, powerful Love that he cannot share with anyone, but which he is bound by nonetheless. (Stanza 5) But it is not the right time for these kinds of thoughts to disturb the speaker’s soul, when Glory is going to be covering his coffin frame and across his forehead. (Stanza 6) The speaker reminds himself that he is in Greece, where great wars took place by heroes in ancient times — Spartans killed in battle who were brought back home on shields were as free as he is now because they died in glory. (Stanza 7) He commands his spirit to wake up, noting that Greece is already awake. He tells himself to think of his ancestors, who are Ancient Greek if you go back to Classical times — to the ‘parent lake’ of his bloodline, he asks it to be emotionally moved by this thought. (Stanza 8) He commands his spirit to stamp down upon the earlier intense emotions that he felt, otherwise his masculinity (‘manhood’) is not worthy of glory or respect — he should remain unbothered by the smiles and frowns of beauty. (Stanza 9) He asks himself: “If you regret your youth, why continue living?” The land of Death (war) stretches before him, he should step up to battle and willingly give his life. (Stanza 10) He tells his soul to look for a soldier’s grave — this is something more often found than actively looked for because soldiers usually don’t go into battle expecting or wishing to die. In the speaker’s case, he is happy to die and will choose his resting spot on the ground during the battle.
This is a personal poem, written by Byron in his journal in Missolonghi, Greece, just before he was about to lead a battle for Greek independence against the Ottomans (Turkish). It is likely intended only for himself, or perhaps close friends to read after his anticipated death. The speaker is therefore Byron himself, who explores a complex range of feelings before steeling himself and mentally preparing to die in battle. He resolves that he has not found love or happiness in life, so to die in battle may give a noble end to his wasted youth. There is a mixture of heroism and depression in his thoughts, and so the poem oscillates between a courageous and disconsolate tone, giving a disconcerting and uneasy feeling to the lines.
Synecdoche — ‘this heart should be unmoved’ — the poem opens with an image of the heart, which stands as a placeholder to represent Byron’s emotions and feelings.
Extended metaphor — ‘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 second stanza uses an extended metaphor, Byron visualizes his life as passing through seasons, as nature does, concluding that he is in ‘the yellow leaf’ at thirty-six years old — he is passing into the autumn of his life, past the times of Summer where Love was plenty. He only has the tripartite structure of ‘The worm- the canker, and the grief’ to look forward to, images of decay and misery.
Simile — ‘lone as some Volcanic isle’ — the ‘fire’ in the speaker’s heart is lonely, Byron uses both a metaphor and a simile here to demonstrate the idea that his emotions are passionate but they have nowhere to go, no outlet to pour into.
Listing- ‘The hope, the fear, the jealous care / The exalted portion of the pain/ and power of Love I cannot share’ — the poet uses a list of abstract nouns to exemplify the extreme range of positive and negative emotions he is feeling, including the oxymoron ‘jealous care’, which emphasizes how some of these emotions are contradictory. There is also a kind of truth in the fact that caring for someone or something can turn into jealousy when the situation is not reciprocated and the love is unreturned. The phrase ‘exalted portion of the pain’ is also contradictory, as the adjective ‘exalted’ can refer both to extreme happiness, or to a person in a high position. The double nature of this word is likely used deliberately, to suggest that Byron partly enjoys the state of sadness he’s in, as if it is comforting or comfortable to him, and it also implies that he idolizes his pain, placing it on a pedestal and allowing it to frequently consume his thoughts and dictate his actions.
Personification — certain abstract nouns are personified, such as ‘Love’ and ‘Glory’, to imply that they are high states of being to which we should always aspire. This is also a technique that is commonly used in Classical Greek and Roman literature, and as Byron is in Greece and feels indebted to Greek culture and history, it is fitting for him to use the same technique in his writing.
Tripartite structure — ‘The Sword, the Banner and the Field’ — Byron appears to be in front of a battlefield, envisioning the battle that is about to take place there — he perhaps feels as though he will be a significant figure in history by partaking in this battle. The tripartite structure is a rhetorical device that almost acts persuasively on himself as if he is trying to rouse himself from a state of introspection and depression into action and confidence.
Rhetorical question — ‘If thou regret’ st thy youth, why live?’ the question furthers the persuasive intent of the poem, using logic to build an argument against the idea of continuing to be miserable and in decline, Byron resolves that it is better to die for a noble cause than to continue living in a state of despair; this seems to have a positively persuasive effect on his mind and encourages him to seek Glory in death if in life he is unable to find Love.
STRUCTURE / FORM
Subtitle — January 22nd, 1824 Missolonghi (Greece) — the subtitle of the poem gives it a documentary-style, historical and monumental feeling, as if the poem marks a significant turning point in Byron’s life, and perhaps history — as he was about to go to war with the Turkish Empire and fight for Greek independence. It also implies the epistolary form of the poem — the fact that it was a private journal entry, intended for Byron to express his thoughts and explore his own psyche, rather than to be read publicly by others. Although, on the other hand, Byron did know that he was famous and that there was a chance his private thoughts would have been published after his death, so he may also have been writing the poem as a preparation for those the public to commemorate him heroically after his death in battle.
Elegy — If we believe that Byron intended the poem to be found and published posthumously (after his death), then it could also be considered a kind of elegiac poem, one intended to commemorate the dead — curiously this would also make it Byron’s own elegy to himself, as elegies are typically written about other people. Tragically, Byron caught a fever and died before ever reaching battle, and so his death was not the one which he envisioned for himself — although he is still revered today as a hero in Greece, with a part of Athens being named after him (Vyronas).
ABAB rhyme scheme — the alternate rhyme of the poem perhaps implies an oscillation between the two conflicted states of Byron’s mind — he is torn between succumbing to his intense emotions and wallowing in a state of depression as he tries to carry on with his life, or actively seeking out death in battle and being remembered as a hero.
Iambic tetrameter / iambic dimeter — the first three lines of each stanza use iambic tetrameter — four feet per line, arranged in unstressed-stressed syllables. They get shorter towards the end of each stanza, ending in dimeter — two feet per line. This has the effect of each stanza feeling as though it’s cut short — perhaps to anticipate Byron’s life being cut short, or else his attempt to stop his intense emotions from taking over his mind by regaining some control over his thoughts. Furthermore, the use of half-rhyme indicates death/decay, for instance ‘move’ and ‘Love’, or ‘gone’ and ‘alone’ look the same visually, but phonetically have slight differences in pronunciation.
Volta — ‘But ’tis not thus’ — the stanza beginning with these lines signifies a volta — a turning point in the tone of the poem; Byron’s thoughts turn from being self-destructively consumed by conflicting emotions into projecting outwards, convincing himself that he can use his feelings to fight for Glory and regain his honor and nobility. The use of italicizations — thus, here, now — is also highly emphatic, they provide stress or emphasis on time and place, helping to enhance the argument that it is neither the time nor place to wallow in self-pity, as it is the time for action.
Parenthesis — ‘Awake(not Greece — she is awake)’ — the use of parenthesis here provides a comical interlude to a serious poem about life, death, and glory. Byron seems aware that the subject of his previous stanza was ‘Greece’ itself, and so the imperative verb ‘Awake’ reads at first as though it still refers to Greece. He offers the correction ‘Awake, my soul’ in the second line, which also serves as anaphora — a repetition of the word ‘Awake’ at the beginning of the line. This suggests a self-critical nature and that Byron is playfully as well as painfully aware of his shortcomings, as he is criticizing himself for unclear writing even as he writes the poem.
This was the final entry in Byron’s journal before he died (aged 36, which for the time was middle-aged for most people). He was in Missolonghi, Greece, waiting to receive battle orders for an attack that he had planned against the Ottoman army — at the time, Greek was under Turkish occupation, and so Byron was fighting for Greek independence and saw himself as an honorable savior of the Greek people. He was not directly Greek himself but trained extensively and very much influenced by Classical Greek literature and history, and so (as he acknowledges in his poem) he felt a kinship and solidarity with the people of Greece, some of whom returned his feelings of kinship and some who sought to exploit his wealth and generosity. Byron had exiled himself from England at this point in his life due to several scandals and figures in society who sought to ruin his name, and so he settled for a time in Greece and became involved in the politics there. He sold some of his property and amassed debts in order to fund the political campaign he orchestrated against the Ottomans. Though tragically Byron died of a fever before entering battle, the Greeks were successful in their war of Independence and to this day acknowledge Byron’s contribution to their successful campaign, naming a part of Athens ‘Vyronas’ in his honor.
Spartan borne upon his shield — dead Spartan soldiers were carried back home on their shields as a sign of honor; it was common knowledge in Ancient Greece that Spartans (who had a warrior culture) never gave up their shields — they either returned to Sparta carrying their shields or if they died the other soldiers carried them back to Sparta on their shields as a sign of respect and honor.
Byronic hero — The concept of a ‘Byronic hero’ exists in literature and stories even today, and it stems from Byron and his crazy antics. A conflicted figure who once famously stated ‘I am such a strange mélange of good and evil that it would be difficult to describe me’. The antithetical extremes of good and evil, darkness and light were inherent in Byron’s nature, and they can be seen in this poem as motivating factors behind his actions and life decisions. He is torn between the ‘exalted’ pleasures and pains that the experiences in life, and the idea that in death he could give up his life for a cause greater than himself. He seems to view the decision as partially altruistic — for the greater good of the Greek people — and partially restorative — to regain his own honour after becoming infamous in England and self-imposing an exile.
The poem also explores the Classical Greek notions of heroism, most notably psuche — the Greek concept of the soul or ‘spirit’, and kleos — the type of fame and glory attained after dying on a battlefield.
It is a kind of weakness to be ruled by our emotions — Throughout the poem, there is a battle between the heart — emotions — and the mind — logic/reason and the poem progresses structurally from emotional outbursts to calm, logical and determined thinking. It also psychologically shifts from the internal to the external, from introspection and passivity to action.
Death can restore nobility that a person has lost in life — As mentioned in the context, the concept of kleos seems central to the poem — Byron feels that it is not too late to regain his honor and to be remembered as a positive figure in history, rather than a ruined and villainous one. At the time he had been involved in various scandals in England and was very unfavorably portrayed in the public eye (having been positively famous previously, he found this hard to take), he left England never to return alive and with this transition he also seems to have felt he could still gain the positive glory and fame that he always sought, though this time it would require a sacrifice of his own life in order to do so.
The stages of life are like seasons — it is common in the literature to portray a person’s life as occurring in seasons or various natural stages — spring is often childhood and early adulthood, summer is the prime of a person’s life, autumn a time for calming down and reflecting — perhaps teaching or passing on knowledge, and wintertime for rest, enjoyment and peace. Byron feels that he is past his prime, he is ‘in the yellow leaf’ stage of his life, but having not settled down or married (although he did have several children with different women and also adopted a Muslim girl whose parents had been killed in war), he is not at the typical point of an ‘autumn’ stage, so he resolves to choose a different ending for himself, as he chose an alternative and unusual path in life too.
All Western culture has its roots in Ancient Greek and Roman traditions — Byron pays homage to Greek literature and history that he was educated in by living in Greece and fighting for the independence of modern Greek people from the Ottoman empire. He calls this the ‘parent lake’ of his bloodline, acknowledging that all Western culture in a sense comes from this Greek origin, as Athens was the creator of democracy on which modern politics and social structures are founded.
- Emotion vs Logic
- Youth vs Maturity
- Western History
Thanks for reading! If you find this page useful, you can take a look at our full courses here: