How does Childe Harold's Pilgrimage reflect the characteristic of Romanticism that places emphasis on the value of the unique individual?
Childe Harold is a typical Romantic (and Byronic) hero in that he is on a quest for truth after falling into despair about the world. He is more anguished, sensitive and impressionable than the average person, and shows his individualism by traveling alone to seek wisdom and insight.
Childe Harold is, like his creator, Byron, different (in his own mind) from the common herd. Harold also shares some similarities with the poet Wordsworth, often considered the father of romanticism. Disillusionment with the French Revolution led Wordsworth back to the Lake District to find solace in nature. Childe Harold also finds solace in nature as he seeks out solitary spots for contemplation.
Like Wordsworth, who saw himself as a visionary put on earth to use poetry to guide humankind to transformation, Byron, and his more direct cohort of friends, such as the Shelleys, saw themselves as a breed apart. This is reflected in the person of Childe Harold.
What we find in this long poem is a solitary, anguished individual seeking truth and solace through being alone in nature, through love (of which he finds himself unworthy), and through introspection. This is the individualism of Romanticism: the power of the lone genius or visionary, who must suffer in his quest for truth. He does not come to truth and insight through community, but through solitude and through setting himself apart.
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage in 1812 established Lord Byron as the leading poet in England, and the work is a beautiful expression of English Romanticism in its explorations of antiquity and celebrations of nature. From his life in England and through his journeys, Harold becomes the Romantic Byronic hero, a figure who would appear many times over in Western literature to follow.
One of the primary characteristics of Romanticism is the emphasis upon the individual; the interior life, particularly in terms of self-awareness and self-fulfillment are valued more than the individual's role in society. In American literature in the 1800s, these Romantic philosophies were clearly expressed in the Transcendental works of Emerson and Thoreau. In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, they create the framework of the poem itself; troubled and discontent, Harold leaves his home to go in search of truth about human existence, and in doing so, discovers essential inner truths. Harold's pilgrimage, therefore, is both external and internal. His journeys into foreign lands appealed to readers' interest in the exotic, but it is in his exploration, awareness, and development of self that Byron's Romantic themes are best realized.