Childe Harold's Pilgrimage "The Unreturning Brave"

Lord George Gordon Byron

"The Unreturning Brave"

Context: Not since the Faerie Queene of 1590–1596, by Edmund Spenser (1552–1599), the first important epic in English by a major poet, had the Spenserian stanza he devised been put to such good use as in Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. The stanza consists of nine lines, the first eight in iambic pentameter, and the last line with an additional foot. The rhyme is ababbcbcc. Byron uses it to record the wanderings of Harold, a Romantic figure, disillusioned and unable to live with his fellow men. Only in Nature can he find relief from his bitter thoughts. In Cantos I and II, published in 1812, the young lord follows the pilgrimage made by Byron himself, through the Mediterranean to Greece, beloved because of its struggle for liberty. In Canto III, not published until 1816, Childe Harold has reached the battlefield of Waterloo where the previous year Wellington had ended forever Napoleon's aspirations to power, and made it, as Byron declares, "the grave of France." The poet describes social activities in "Belgium's capital" when "fair women" and "brave men" in the ballroom are more interested in their dancing than in the struggle of Napoleon and Ney against Wellington and Blücher. However, the cannon roar tells the Duke of Brunswick that death is near. He rushes to the conflict and is one of the first to fall. After sudden partings amid tears, with the mustering of squadrons and the clattering of cars, the suddenly-awakened soldiers are drummed into ranks. Bagpipes shrill; the sound of "Cameron's gathering" inspires the soldiers to extra bravery. On to the battlefield they march, under the trees of what Shakespeare had called "The forest of Arden," but known as "the Ardennes Woods" to American soldiers of the First World War. In the early morning they are dripping dew as if mourning for those who will never come back. Battle figures for that day in June assign 32,000 casualties to the French and 23,000 to the allied British and Prussians. They were the brave who never returned. Describing the march to the battlefield at the beginning of the struggle–how next year some will be beneath the grass over which they now walk–Byron writes in Stanza 27

And Ardennes waves above them her green leaves,
Dewy with nature's tear-drops, as they pass,
Grieving, if aught inanimate e'er grieves,
Over the unreturning brave–alas!
Ere evening to be trodden like the grass
Which now beneath them, but above shall grow
In its next verdure, when this fiery mass
Of living valour, rolling on the foe
And burning with high hope shall moulder cold and low.