First and foremost, this poem sounds like a song if we ever heard one—and not just any song, but a kid's song, sort of. Think about it; it rhymes every other line pretty regularly, the lines are short (only three beats), and the poem itself is short and repetitive. This means it's easy to memorize, like lots of kid's songs. Try humming the first stanza to yourself to get an idea:
So we'll go no more a roving
So late into the night
Though the heart be still as loving
And the moon be still as bright.
Still don't believe us? Check out this overly somber version.
There's more to say about this poem than "it sounds like a song," however. This is a poem about not roving, right? Yes it is. Even though the speaker is resolved to stop roving, he still makes the poem sound like roving; this is how he gets his fix, without actually going roving. It's the equivalent of virtual reality: you get to do something without really doing it. And the poem's sounds help to get that idea across.
For example, you will notice that in the poem's final stanza, the words "roving" and "loving" occur, just as they did in the first stanza. We are transported back to the poem's beginning when we hear these words, only with a slight difference (in the first stanza "roving" comes first; in the last, "loving" comes first). The repetition of these words, and the poem's repetitive rhyme scheme (ABAB CDCD AEAE), give the poem a sense of (sonic) purpose: the speaker's resolution not to rove is matched by a poem whose sounds don't rove.
What we mean is, the poem keeps coming back to the same sounds, rather than straying all over the place and trying out different rhymes and sounds and that sort of thing (note, for example, how many words in this poem contain the letter O). When we encounter the words "loving" and "roving" in the poem's final stanza, we feel that we have returned from a short, circular journey. We arrive at the same place from where we set out; we rove, but not really, since we come back. The poem has a destination, so to speak, while roving, by definition, is wandering with no particular destination. And just as the speaker talks about this through the poem's content, the sounds at work here are preoccupied by the same challenge: do I stay or do I go?
The title is the first line of the poem, and it tells us that this is going to be a poem about a dude who's made an important decision: not to rove. Roving—that's a word that means wandering, roaming, frolicking, something like that. Keeping all these different meanings in mind, we can infer just based on the title that this poem is gonna have something to do with growing up, making a decision to do something more serious, something like that. Keep in mind that we don't know anything about the speaker's reasons or motivations for this momentous, impending decision, a fact that makes us want to learn more. The title, though, boldly announces his new plan of action, or inaction, rather. He's calling it quits, and we dive into the poem to find out why.
Venice, 1817. And no, not Venice, California. Venice, Italy—the real Venice, the Venice after which the California one was named, the city that is surrounded by water where everybody uses boats instead of cars (and canals instead of roads). That Venice, folks. This is where Byron was living when he wrote the poem in 1817. Venice was an important place for Byron, and an important place to keep in mind as you read, even though, technically, it's nowhere to be found in the poem itself.
Still, from what he tells us in his letters, Venice in 1817 seemed like a pretty happening place, if you had money and connections that is: dinner parties, nighttime boat trips, balls, and all that good stuff. In the letter in which he included the poem, Byron tells us that the Carnival has just ended. Just before Lent (i.e., the 40-day period leading up to Easter), the Venetians would hold a party in San Marco Square, complete with masks, costumes, and dancing. The combination of the Carnival and staying up really late were too much for Byron, and prompted him, in part, to write the poem.
If this is the background setting to the poem, what about the setting in the poem itself? We might best describe it as "afterwards." Clearly, our speaker is looking back on his past shenanigans, and resolving not to repeat them again. In that way, he's all about a change of scenery, even if it's not literal scenery in the poem. We can guess from Byron's bio that he would be looking back at the wild times in Venice. Still, without those details in the poem, we can more safely say that the poem is set in our speaker's mind, which is in a reflective, but newly determined, mood.
A guy who's getting tired of doing what he always does: that's the best way to describe this guy. This is partly because he's begun to worry just a little bit about getting older, about death. The parts about the sword outwearing its sheath, and the soul wearing out the breast, point to the fact that death is "roving" all over his mind. While he doesn't specifically say so, it sounds like the speaker wants to stop roving—stop messing around—because he's getting closer to death and wants something more out of life. Or rather, he wants to spend the time remaining doing more fulfilling things, getting ready for death, that sort of thing.
Okay, so our speaker is a former rover or wanderer—an ex-partier we might say— metaphorically sobering up and starting to worry about death. Funny, this reminds us a lot of the dude who actually wrote the poem: George Gordon, Lord Byron.
Well that's because this is a really autobiographical poem. Byron included it in a letter he wrote that mentioned many of the same feelings described or implied in the poem: a sense of dissatisfaction with the high life in Venice (where he was living) and an awareness of the fact that he was getting older and wasn't going to live forever. While we should always be careful to distinguish between the speaker and the author, in this case, it's okay to blur the line just a little bit.
So, knowing how personal this poem was for Byron, and how autobiographical it really is, an even better way to think about the speaker is to think of him as a young guy, if not necessarily the young Lord Byron. He can still be considered young (about 29), but he's just on the cusp of not-young. Young-ish? That's better. He's a youngish dude who's starting to feel old. He used to love to go out and get crazy—to rove—but he's starting to get tired of it. After a while, you have to grow up. Sure, the moon is still inviting and bright, and the night is a darn good time for loving, but his heart's just not in it anymore.
This poem shouldn't give you too much trouble. Sure, it's not always clear what the speaker means when he says things like "loving," but in general his sentences are pretty short and clear, his word choice very simple. The only real difficulties lie in trying to figure out why the speaker is thinking about death, or what exactly is going on with the meter. But we've got those covered. Head over to "Form and Meter" and "In a Nutshell" for some scintillating, but slightly roving, discussion.
When we say roving is Byron's trademark, we don't mean the word "roving," although that may be true. We mean the very idea of roving—wandering, roaming, travelling. This idea is everywhere in Byron's major works, as a theme, formal structure, basically anything it could possibly be.
Byron's first major work, English Bards and Scots Reviewers (1809), for example, "roves" from topic to topic as it lampoons a number of major early nineteenth-century critics and poets. Byron's next major work, the one that made him super famous, Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Parts 1 and 2, 1812), is about a dude named Harold who wanders all over Napoleonic and post-Napoleonic Europe. Don Juan (1819-24), Byron's greatest work, is just like the previous two. In that poem Don Juan (pronounced "joo-awn") experiences a variety of adventures as he wanders from place to place. Roving, folks—it's everywhere in Byron.
The meter of this poem is mostly iambic trimeter. That means there are supposed to be three (tri-) iambs per line. (An iamb is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable, which sounds like: daDUM. If you want to hear one in action, say the word "allow" out loud.) Now, we say "supposed to be" because most of the lines in this poem only have two iambs. Wait, really? Yes really. Every line in this poem, with the exception of lines 2 and 8, contains one anapest, followed by two iambs.
So what's an anapest, then? An anapest is a beat type that contains two unstressed syllables followed by a stressed syllable, as in line 4:
And the moon be still as bright.
So, if all the lines in this poem, with two exceptions, contain one anapest and two iambs, why call it iambic trimeter? Well even though there are anapests all over, there are more iambs. The iamb is clearly the dominant beat type in this poem. It's perfectly okay to say you're writing iambic trimeter and then to toss in some other types of beats, just for variety. And just in case you were wondering, the anapest sounds kind of like a little gallop or something like that. Their frequency in this poem makes it sound swift, fleet, almost as if it were marching to some particular destination, almost as if it were, dare we say it, roving, just a little bit? Are you with us? Right?
So, that's the meter. What about other aspects of structure? Usually, the poem is printed in three stanzas of four lines each (these are called quatrains). The poem also rhymes, with a rhyme scheme that looks like this: ABAB CDCD AEAE (were each letter represents the last, rhyming sound in that line). Notice that the "A" rhyme returns in the poem's final stanza. This is pretty cool; the poem is coming full circle.
There's a lot of ways you can interpret the repetition of this rhyme, so we'll just give you one. The poem is all about roving, about wandering around with no particular destination. Well guess what? The rhymes in this poem have a destination. They start at one place, and return to it later. In other words, it doesn't roam all over the place; it keeps things nice and compact. Just as the speaker refuses to keep roving, the rhymes themselves come home to stay, too.
Here's the other little thing to notice about the poem's rhymes. The sequence of the "A" rhymes is this: "roving"-"loving"-"loving"-"roving." Do you see how the two occurrences of the word "loving" are sandwiched in between the two occurrences of the word "roving"? Well, that folks is called a chiasmus, which you can read about right here. The chiasmus complements the rhyme, or is part of it. It makes the poem seem neat and compact, balanced and purposeful—just like the speaker is painting himself to be.
That's what this poem is all about: roving. Or rather, it's about deciding not to rove anymore. Roving means wandering or roaming; it is associated in this poem with youth and symbolizes a host of youthful or childish activities that one outgrows. Since this is also a poem about death, roving also is a stand-in for life itself; the speaker intimates that he's getting older, and that eventually he will die and have to stop roving. Gee, it sounds like roving sure has something to do with living to us.
Let's see… we have "late into the night," "the night was made for loving," and two occurrences of the word "moon." Yep, this is definitely a dark poem, in a couple of different ways. It literally talks a lot about nighttime, the time of the day that is ideal for roving, the time when loving goes down. But the poem is nighttime-ish in another sense as well. All that business about the sword outwearing its sheath tells us that the speaker is now thinking about the nighttime of his life, his twilight years, so to speak. When the speaker talks about the night as a time for having fun, we can't help thinking of death as well.
Swords outwearing sheaths, souls outwearing breasts—this is a poem about getting worn out, in a lot of ways. Clearly the speaker is worn out from all his wandering (he's getting older, it's not really his thing anymore, etc.), and he uses the metaphors of the sword and the soul to explain it. The thing is, wearing things out is essentially a metaphor for death. Sheesh, and we though it was going to be a nice, happy, fun poem.
Okay so there's nothing obviously sexual about this poem, but "loving"? Going out late and loving? Sometimes, that can be a very delicate way of referring to something sexual, and we know from Byron's bio that dude loved sex, and got into a lot of trouble for it. Still, the love doesn't seem too dirty here, so we'll just go ahead and say this poem is like a Disney movie: PG.