The Poem (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
In Canto 1, Bryon introduces Childe Harold, a young English nobleman who has been wasting his life with drinking, idleness, and making love to unsuitable women. The woman he does love he cannot have. Despondent, he leaves his family, his family home, his heritage. and his lands to travel, albeit with no clear destination. Perhaps, he thinks, he will find happiness and some meaning to his life once he leaves England.
Leaving, he sings a mournful song—the poem “Good Night”—bidding farewell to his homeland, to his parents, and to his wife and sons. Harold encourages the young page who accompanies him over the ocean not to be afraid. When Harold lands on the shore of Portugal, he finds himself moved in strange and unexpected ways. He begins exploring the land on horseback, moving aimlessly in search of his destiny, and he wanders into the mountains northeast of Lisbon, to Cintra, the site of the Convention that allowed the defeated French army to withdraw intact. Harold comments on the disgrace of this event. He makes many such comments on political events. He also reflects on the scenery, finding the land beautiful but the people dirty and immoral. Harold laments on the sorry state of these men and women who live in such a beautiful land. He continues into Spain.
In Spain, Harold is again thrilled by the magnificence of the scenery but appalled at the depths to which the civilization has fallen. His first real understanding of human cruelty occurs in Spain, where he watches a bullfight. He watches the cruelty of the humans tormenting the bull and the courage of the beast, who cannot understand why anyone would try to hurt it. The bullfight, as always,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Spain. In canto 1, Childe Harold departs Albion, or England, and crosses the Bay of Biscay to Portugal and Spain, which has become the battleground for “Gaul’s,” or France’s, “unsparing lord” (Napoleon). Although Napoleon is dramatized as a conqueror justly condemned for his ruthlessness, he also represents a new force for freedom sweeping away Europe’s monarchies and rejuvenating its people. Harold himself is seeking precisely this kind of renewal. With Napoleon’s defeat “Britannia,” or England, “sickens,” Byron exclaims. He exhorts: “Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance!” Spain is no longer the land of chivalry; it is ruled by a corrupt king, a “bloated Chief,” and will soon be a conquered province over which European nations will squabble. The ebbing strength and nobility of cities such as Seville and Cádiz are lamented as Harold makes his way through the “nerveless state.”
*Greece. In canto 2, Harold visits the famous site of the Parthenon, a temple devoted to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. However, like Spain, Greece has been robbed of its glory. British marauders have taken away parts of the ancient building and defaced a shrine. All Greece has become a “sad relic of departed worth.” Seeking inspiration in the places of Western greatness, Harold finds only degradation as he traces Alexander the Great’s path through Albania and other parts of the Balkans.
*Belgium. In canto 3, the “self-exiled” Harold visits the “grave of France, the deadly Waterloo,” where Napoleon suffered...
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Works. Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 13 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1966. Originally published between 1898 and 1904 in thirteen volumes, this is a complete collection of all Byron’s poetry and prose, along with extensive introductions and notes, both by the editor and by Byron himself. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage appears in volume 2.
Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A study of Byron’s reputation after death, exploring bitter and conflicting accounts by the wife he divorced and the sister he seduced.
Gleckner, Robert F. Byron and the Ruins of Paradise. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. A critical discussion of Byron’s viewpoint, as seen through his poetry. Byron’s views of natural beauty and human failings are emphasized. Two chapters are dedicated to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an excellent example of these feelings.
Jump, John D., ed. Byron: A Symposium. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. A collection of essays on Byron and his poetical works, by various authors. “The Poet of Childe Harold,” by Francis Berry, emphasizes the stylistic devices of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and other works Byron wrote during the same period, in relation to the works of his contemporaries and of later writers.
MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A biography that re-examines the life of the poet in the light of MacCarthy’s assertion that Byron was bisexual, a victim of early abuse by his nurse.
Marchand, Leslie A. Byron’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. A general introduction to Byron’s poetry, intended for twentieth century students and general readers. This book places Byron’s work in the context of the literary tradition he followed, the works of his contemporaries, and the historical times in which Byron lived.
Thorslev, Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. A study of the alienated antihero common in Romantic poetry, essentially created by Byron, especially in Childe Harold. Emphasis is placed on the historical background of Byron’s times.