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Venice, 1817. Lord Byron had left England nearly a year before, never to return. He didn't just go and hang out in Italy because Italy was awesome (although it is really awesome). He sort of had to leave because he had been a very bad boy, so bad that his wife took their young daughter and left him. Left him, Lord Byron, literary celebrity and genius. Well, to be fair: just about anybody would have left Byron; he just couldn't, ahem, remain faithful to his wife. This is probably why Lady Caroline Lamb, a married woman that Byron had an affair with, once referred to him as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." (Read more about Byron's terrible marriage here.)
Anyway, in 1817 Byron wasn't feeling so good, despite the fact that he was living in the scenic waterfront of Venice, Italy. In a letter to his dear friend Thomas Moore, Byron wrote "At present, I am on the invalid regimen myself," adding later that the Venice high life had begun to weary him: "I did not dissipate much on the whole [i.e. eat and drink in excess], yet I feel the 'sword wearing out the scabbard,' though I have just turned the corner of twenty-nine" (Byron was worried about getting older, maybe even about death).
Immediately after these lines, Byron included the recently-penned "So We'll Go No More A-Roving," which would remain unpublished until 1830, six years after his death in Greece at the ripe young age of 36. (The consummate Romantic, Byron was there assisting in the Greek War of Independence.)
The context in which Byron's poem first appeared—a letter that talks about getting tired of things—is a clue to its major themes. At 29, Byron was starting to feel old. He had had just about enough of life in high society at the time, and was ready to chill out a little bit. This is what he means when he says "well go no more a-roving." The nights are great, perfect for going out and getting crazy and having fun, but after a while it gets old. Eventually, it's time to move on to other things, to get more serious, to realize that life isn't gonna last forever. And move on to other things Byron did in the last seven years remaining to him, most importantly to the composition of his greatest work: Don Juan (pronounced "joo-awn"), a satirical masterpiece unfinished at his death.
Everybody goes through the toy phase. The what? The toy phase, that period in your life where your toys have to go everywhere with you (to the restaurant, in the car, on the airplane, in the bat tub, etc.), the phase where new G.I. Joes and Barbies under the Christmas tree are pretty much the greatest thing in the world.
Okay, so maybe action figures and dolls weren't your thing. But we'll bet there was something else that was similar; maybe you were really into comic books (we at Shmoop still are), or playing tag with the neighborhood kids, or climbing trees, or watching cartoons non-stop. The point is, we've all gone through a period in our lives where we do "kid" things.
There comes a point for all of us when those "kid" things start to get a little old. We start to play with our toys just a little less, we only climb trees on Saturdays, we decide to watch fewer cartoons, then none at all. As we get older, we grow out of these things, or get tired of them. And as we start to get tired of them, we realize that we're growing up, that we're getting older, that we have to start thinking about other things because we're not gonna be around forever.
That folks is exactly what "So We'll Go No More A-Roving" is about. But Lord Byron says nothing about toys and climbing trees, you might say? You're right he doesn't, but he sure talks a lot about growing up, in a manner of speaking. Byron says "roving," his word for wandering around, partying, getting crazy, acting immature, we say playing scuba diver in the tub with your G.I. Joes—two totally different things, but two things that get old after a while, two things that at some point you need to set aside when the time comes to grow up and get serious.
But this poem isn't just about growing up a little bit, or getting tired of things. It's also about getting older, about inching that much closer to death. When the speaker talks about the sword wearing out the sheath and all that business, he's talking about his soul (sword) wearing out the body (sheath), which is his way of saying his soul is getting ready for its final journey out of this world and into the next. Roving in this context just refers to anything that isn't fulfilling, anything that somebody should set aside because death isn't too far, and it would be a shame to have wasted time roving rather than doing something more productive or enriching.
A Short Byron Bio
Learn some more about this fascinating poet.
The Hellespont Swim
If you're feeling adventurous and want to emulate Byron's legendary swim, check this out.
Jeez, they wouldn't let him be buried in Westminster Abbey? Come on.
Poem, with Guitar
Here's a video of a dude named Richard Dyer singing the poem with his guitar.
If guitars aren't your thing, check out this choral version.
No offence, Mr. Dyer, but step aside and let the master show you how to do it.
And Joan Baez
The famed folk artist also gets in on the act.
Byron in Rodin's The Thinker.
Here's a very famous painting of Byron's profile.
Byron in Albanian Dress
What's with the headdress, dude?
Check out Byron's memorial plaque in Westminster Abbey (he's not buried there, however).
That's a pretty slick epitaph.
Byron's Home in Venice
We're guessing he didn't have the entire building to himself. Then again, he was a lord.
Venetians at Carnival
This is scary and cool at the same time.
Oxford World's Classics Edition
Ah, there's that picture again.
Popular Biography of Byron
Wanna learn more about Byron's extraordinary life? Look no further.
Byron (Made for TV)
Hey, wasn't this guy in that movie Hackers?
The Bad Lord Byron
This 1949 movie sounds pretty cool.