Friday, April 3, 2009


Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), the very talented though indulgent, now mostly neglected songwriter, novelist and dramatist born in Bath, England on October 13, 1797 has lately been on my mind. If we touched on him in English Lit at Ole Miss it was only briefly and mostly because of the preponderance of even greater English writers. Bayly exhibited great promise for even as child he demonstrated a penchant for writing verse and you know how I love words. Despite being born of wealthy parents and assured a successful career in law, he gave it all up to study for the priesthood at Oxford. That didn’t last long and Bayly later went on to become a celebrated writer and despite some successes, his life came tumbling down, dying early at age 42. It was a Hell of a ride though and in that interim he managed to write some acclaimed pieces to include Long, Long Ago, a song destined to become an American favorite.

But we are remembering him in this post as the credited composer of that old now clichéd adage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder” taken from the last line of the second verse of one of his songs, Isle of Beauty, Fare Thee Well from the first volume of Songs to Rosa (his wife was Helena Hayes from Dublin) which was published posthumously in 1850. The line goes, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, Isle of Beauty, fare thee well!” I found the sheet music and lyrics at a University of North Carolina site and was bothered that the second stanza bore a striking similarity to a passage attributed throughout much of the Internet to John Milton in his epic poem, Paradise Lost. In fact, the verse attributed to both Bayly and Milton is exactly the same. Since the blind Milton wrote Paradise Lost from 1658 to 1667, one hundred and thirty-nine years before Bayly was born in 1797, I wanted to clarify this issue for all time.

I engaged Boolean searches and scanned the entire Milton epic for the passage, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder, Isle of Beauty, fare thee well!" and have not found it. I scanned all twelve books of the second edition for words contained in the entire second verse of Bayly’s Isle of Beauty and found no similarity in any of Milton’s work. I also engaged three study guides with similar results.

What I did notice was that the heroic verse, without rhyme (blank verse) style of Milton’s Paradise Lost is not the same as the mostly rhyming ballad style of Isle of Beauty and that should have tipped me off immediately. In fact, it’s obvious that the credit for “Absence” goes to Bayly and I am sure that would be validated by any Professor of English Literature worth his or her salt. The attribution to Milton was either a deliberate fraud or honest mistake by one citizen which once Internet-fed, was picked up by intellectual zombies where it has been repeated over and over to exponential heights. Sorry Bayly, we have you back in the winner’s box.

We can totally exonerate Bayly though the absence sentiment had apparently attained almost cliché status by Bayly’s time. We can understand that the message is universal and not surprised that others have more or less expressed the same powerful sentiment over the ages. We believe that The Roman
elegiac poet Sextus Propertius (ca 50 BCE to 15 BCE) who was a good buddy to Ovid gave us the earliest form of this saying in his Elegies, “semper in absentes felicior aestus amantes”, “Always toward absent lovers love’s tide stronger flows.”

The contemporary Absence version appears first as the title of an anonymous English poem in 1602 though that may be attributed to either Francis or Walter Davison, publishers of
A Poetical Rhapsody, a collection of "divers sonnets, odes, elegies, madrigals, and other Poesies.

Francois Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) the noted French author of maxims and memoirs makes his contribution to our sentiment in his Maximes (p. 276), “Absence diminishes little passions and increases great ones, as the wind extinguishes candles and fans a fire or as my best Friend from Montreal would say, “L'absence diminue les mediocres passions et augmente les grandes, comme le vent eteint les bougies et allume le feu”. Well, Rochefoucauld was right but that sentiment comes from the same man who recognized that, “True love is like a ghost: everyone speaks of it, but few have seen it.” In fact, few have ever experienced true love.

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare has also had his hand deep in the till with such famous lines as, “Absence doth sharpen love, presence strengthens it; the one brings fuel, the other blows it till it burns clear” and one of my absolute favorites, “Absence from those we love is self from self - a deadly banishment.”

James Howell, Historiographer Royal of England under Charles II in his mostly fictional Familiar Letters (Epistolae Ho-Elianae – 1650 CE) says that, "Distance sometimes endears friendship, and absence sweeteneth it." All this from a man that spent some nine years in prison for treason and/or indebtedness. That would taint me…

There are countless other writers who have played to the celebration of this same theme and it comes down to us to interpret based on our own life experiences.

For me, it’s Bayly and Shakespeare who for all time cement this little bit of simple transitory emotion and logic as I seem to have been alone most of my life, even when I’ve been surrounded by other folks. That may explain my more melancholy nature though those that know me attribute that to my Scots ancestry (a DNA thing).

It takes a huge leap to reveal your real self and especially in that moment of total vulnerability demonstrate actions that say, I trust and love you. It was never as easy as grandmother Aline Armstrong Buxton’s always exuberant instruction, “Open up the window and let love fly in.”

In a world characterized by constant change and almost frenzied, choreographed transition, the drive to achieve a lasting and special intimacy with that singular person becomes even more meaningful. When that “right” person becomes part of your life don’t be afraid to commit and show your real self – no games. If the relationship has depth, strength and breadth it will succeed and overcome any trial including distance.

The always profound Leo Buscaglia once said, “What we call the secret of happiness is no more a secret than our willingness to choose life.” Thanks Bayly, thanks Leo, thanks William - I choose life…


Ned Buxton

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