Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

Bloody Poetry is about the destructive effect that conventional society has on the rebellious artist. Byron and Bysshe seek to free themselves from the bonds of bourgeois sexual morality. Bysshe, for example, leaves his wife and lives openly with his lover Mary, their child, and Mary’s half sister Claire; the public outcry forces the group into exile. Bysshe marries Mary after his first wife, Harriet, commits suicide, but he continues to sleep with any woman who pleases him, even the pregnant Claire. He practices sexual freedom, yet cannot feel free. He is haunted by Harriet’s ghost, who says to him as he plans a rendezvous with Claire, “When you touch her, tonight, you can remember touching me, and you will, won’t you, husband.”

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Society’s reaction against Byron’s sexual involvement with his sister Augusta has caused him to flee England as well. A priapic bisexual, Byron sleeps indiscriminately with boys, virginal girls, and married women. He has made Claire pregnant, but he refuses to take any responsibility for his daughter—except to send her away to a convent, where she dies. He suffers from alcoholism and syphilis. His affairs with married women do not make him happy, and he receives death threats from his lovers’ husbands. As he explains, “’Tis all exceedingly wearing on the nerves.”

The consequences of rebellion against conventional sexual morality are even worse for the women. One of Bysshe’s early lovers killed herself with an overdose of opium after he abandoned her. His first wife, Harriet, was forced to turn to prostitution after he left her, and she consequently drowned herself. Mary and Claire became anathema to their families and friends when they chose to become the lovers of the poets. Claire is obsessed by her unrequited love for Byron; Mary is tortured by her jealousy of Bysshe’s other lovers; they both bear children out of wedlock. Claire’s daughter, Allegra, is taken away from her by Byron and placed in a convent, where she dies. Mary follows her husband, Bysshe, down to Venice, only to find that he is having a tryst with Claire. The strain of the journey kills her daughter, Clara; later, Mary becomes pregnant by Bysshe again but suffers a miscarriage. In addition, she must constantly worry about their tenuous financial situation. She says, “The economics of ’free love’? It is all so fragile.”

Bysshe tries to win custody of his children by Harriet after she dies, but the courts will not allow it because of his unconventional lifestyle. However, he still believes that “love is the very essence of liberty—we constrain it by the feudal savagery called the institution of marriage.” Mary takes a less optimistic view of their situation when she scolds him for writing a poem called “The Mask of Anarchy.” She scoffs, “The great revolutionary, English poem—unpublishable! Bury it in your daughter’s coffin, poet.”

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Characters