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From Don Juan

August 10, 2015


What are the hopes of man? old Egypt’s King
Cheops erected the first pyramid
And largest, thinking it was just the thing
To keep his memory whole, and mummy hid;
But somebody or other rummaging,
Burglariously broke his coffin’s lid:
Let not a monument give you or me hopes,
Since not a pinch of dust remains of Cheops.220

But I being fond of true philosophy,
Say very often to myself, ‘Alas!
All things that have been born were born to die,
And flesh (which Death mows down to hay) is grass;
You’ve pass’d your youth not so unpleasantly,
And if you had it o’er again—’twould pass—
So thank your stars that matters are no worse,
And read your Bible, sir, and mind your purse.’
–Lord Byron, 1819
Byron’s technique is on the order of the-meaning-giveth and the tune-taketh-away. While these two stanzas are a summary of the Ecclesiastical grouse that life is short and human glory is vanity, the jaunty 3-step of the rhymes (do-si-doed on the last couplet) injects a measure of frivolity into this bummer of ancient wisdom. The playfulness is particularly apparent in the first stanza where the destruction of the pyramid is gussied up with “burgioriously” and the twist of Cheops rhymes-with-she-stops to Cheops-rhymes-with-hopes. (This is a revisiting of the earliest stanzas of the poem, where Byron lets us know that that his Juan rhymes with “new one”). The comic clincher, though, is in the last line, prescribing two courses of action, Bible reading and thriftiness, that anyone who knows of Byron’s personal life can attest  the poet did not strenuously practice.
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