Childe Harold's Pilgrimage Summary

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron is an epic poem published in 1812. The poem tells the story of a young man who travels through Europe and the Middle East, searching for meaning in a life of excess and hedonism.
  • The narrative begins when the poet-protagonist is exiled from his homeland of England, for reasons that remain unclear.
  • The ensuing cantos take place in Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Greece, and the tone of adventure is frequently counterbalanced by one of longing and sorrow.
  • The narrative bears a resemblance to Byron's own travels, but the work is not intended to be autobiographical.

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Last Updated on July 24, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 615

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Inspired by Byron’s years of wandering through a number of European countries, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage uses Spenserian stanzas consisting of nine lines each to tell the story of a young male aristocrat who has fled his native land and the life of sensuous excess he enjoyed there for a seemingly aimless tour of Europe. The circumstances of his flight are left unclear, though the text indicates that he was motivated by psychological reasons, perhaps relating to his involvement with a socially unattainable romantic partner. Byron always denied what critics at the time of this work’s publication claimed, that it was an example of veiled autobiography. Nonetheless, Byron makes regular authorial intrusions in the text, and his voice is therefore at times hard to distinguish from that of Harold.

The first canto describes Harold’s journeys in Portugal and then in Spain, especially his visits to the towns and battle fields where the armies of Napoleon clashed with the British and Spanish forces during the war that would eventually bring about the collapse of the French empire. Byron spends time discussing the women of Aragon, whose endeavor in fighting the French alongside their male counterparts leads him to compare them to the amazons of ancient Greek mythology, though he finds them still more impressive since they did not receive military training and yet found the strength and courage to conduct themselves as warriors. An atmosphere of melancholy and futility haunts the first canto. Harold’s past sufferings make it difficult for him to enjoy human festivities, an inability that Harold realizes most keenly when attending a bull fight in Spain. During the second canto, Harold visits Greece, a country then under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. When contemplating what remains of Greece’s, specifically Athens’ famous buildings and landmarks, Byron draws comparisons between the fall of such structures and the Greek people’s fall into subjection by a foreign power. He then describes in vivid detail his travels in Albania, a country of which British audiences knew little during Byron’s lifetime.

He published the third canto of this work some time after the first two, and its tone, which is more somber and reproachful than in the previous cantos, reflects the low ebb of the Poet’s emotions, a consequence of his now being in exile from his homeland and separated from the person he loved best. Increasingly, Harold finds consolation in nature, especially in grand and sublime settings such as the ocean and the mountains. However he still finds time to visit the occasional battlefield, notably Waterloo in Belgium, where Napoleon was ultimately defeated, to reflect on how the emperor’s extremism led to the perversion of the French revolution’s lofty ideals. Proceeding then to Switzerland, Byron engages with, and subsequently rejects the theory of the French philosopher Rousseau, as well as those of his contemporaries, Wordsworth and Shelly. The canto ends in mildly optimistic fashion, with the poet insisting that despite his melancholy, he still believes that goodness and happiness are attainable, if not common phenomena in the human world.

The fourth canto sees Harold visiting Italy and the city of Venice which, like Athens, is only a shadow of its former self. The canto is dominated by Byron’s remorse and longing for his homeland England, especially for the society of his daughter, from whom he has now been separated for some years. He speculates that his ghost will one day return to England, in the event of his death. The work concludes with Byron speaking directly to the ocean, commenting on its constancy and inscrutability, in contrast to which all human power is petty and meaningless.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1066

Byron began Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage on his first trip abroad, when he and Hobhouse toured Spain, Portugal, Albania, and Greece. It was originally titled “Childe Burun”; “Childe” refers to a young nobleman who has not yet officially taken his title, and “Burun” is an earlier form of Byron’s own name. Inspired by his recent reading of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (1590, 1596), Byron chose to employ the nine-line Spenserian stanza for the major part of this work.

The first two cantos were published in 1812, and Byron’s ensuing popularity among the social and literary circles of London was unprecedented, in part because the public insisted—with some accuracy and despite Byron’s prefatory disclaimer to the contrary—upon identifying the intriguing Harold as Byron himself. Byron’s own confusion of the two, however, is evident in his frequent dropping of the story line of the work to engage in repeated authorial digressions, which themselves intrude on the almost gratuitous plot. Harold is a young, though not inexperienced, Englishman who is compelled to flee Britain, although, the reader is told, it is in fact his own psyche he is trying to escape. The young man has a mysterious background, an unspeakably painful secret in his past. Perhaps, it is suggested, the secret is of some illicit love. With Harold, Byron introduces the first of his many Byronic heroes.

In canto 1, Harold leaves England, having lived a life of sensuous indulgence. He bids farewell to no friends or family, not even to his mother and sister, although he loves them both deeply. Landing in Portugal, Harold proceeds to visit various battlegrounds across Europe, thus giving Byron as narrator the opportunity to digress on historical, political, and even moral issues of the recent Peninsular War in which England served to help the Spanish resist the French invasion, an event that portended the end of Napoleon I’s tyranny. As he looks upon the towns that were devastated by Napoleon’s army, Byron laments the loss of life and champions those who nobly fought for the preservation of liberty. Byron praises the courageous women of the Spanish province of Aragon who joined the men in resisting an invading French army. Though these women were not trained to be warriors, like the mythological Amazons, but were taught to love, they nevertheless proved themselves to be strong and brave; thus, Byron suggests, they emerge far more beautiful than the women of other countries such as England.

In Spain, Harold witnesses a Sunday bullfight in one of the most famous passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, in which Byron is clearly at the same time fascinated and repelled by this violent yet graceful sport. Though Harold is moved by the beauty and song of the festivities around him, he cannot participate, for his pain alienates him from the joys of human activity. He remains a spectator. Singing a ballad, “To Inez,” Harold mourns the futility of running away when it is his own “secret woe” that he is attempting to escape. Comparing himself to the “Wandering Jew” of medieval legend who, having mocked Christ, is doomed to roam the earth eternally, seeking the peace of death, Harold bemoans the “hell” that lies hidden in the human heart.

Canto 2 opens with a meditation upon the contributions of classical Greece, a salute prompted by Harold’s visit to the Acropolis. As Harold views the ruins of Greece’s high achievements, Byron interprets them as reflections of the present loss of Greek freedom, thus foreshadowing his later involvement in the cause of Greek independence. Descriptions of the mysterious land of Albania in this canto represent one of the earliest authentic representations of this exotic country by an Englishman.

Canto 3 begins with Byron sadly recalling his daughter, Ada, whom he has not seen since the breakup of his marriage. Byron returns to the story of Harold, first warning readers that the young hero has greatly changed since the publication of the first two cantos. During the interim, Byron has endured the painful separation and the scandal concerning his relationship with Augusta, all of which essentially forced him to leave England. His bitterness is evident in the far darker tone of canto 3, and the character of Harold and that of the narrator, never strikingly different in temperament, now are more clearly merged.

Still unable to completely detach himself from feeling the pangs of human compassion, Harold flees to the solitude of natural surroundings, finding nature to be the one true consoler. He feels a communication with the desert, the forest, the ocean, the mountains. Finding Harold at the site of the Battle of Waterloo, “the grave of France,” Byron resumes the theme of Napoleon’s despotism and takes the opportunity to examine tyranny in general. Praising the heroes of that fateful and momentous battle, Byron blames Napoleon’s extremism, arguing that moderation would have prevented the disastrous results of a once noble plan. Harold then travels to Germany, where he still is not immune to feelings of love and joy, however fleeting.

Visiting the Swiss Alps leads Harold to the sites of other battles. Lake Leman (Lake Geneva) recalls to Byron the great French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, one of the forerunners of the Romantic movement. This section, it has often been noted, has a distinctly Shelleyan mood, and indeed Byron wrote it while visiting Percy Bysshe Shelley. Byron explores the pantheistic philosophies of William Wordsworth, Shelley, and Rousseau and expresses feelings of oneness with nature, though he ultimately rejects their ideas. These feelings, furthermore, lead him to consider his feelings of alienation in the world of humankind. Insisting that he is neither cynical nor completely disillusioned, Byron insists that he believes that there are one or two people who are “almost what they seem” and that happiness and goodness are possible. Byron concludes the canto as he begins it, lamenting his absence from Ada, imagining what it would be like to share in her development, to watch her grow.

Canto 4 takes Harold to Italy, at first to Venice, decaying yet still beautiful because its spirit is immortal. Byron confesses that he still has some love for his native country and that he hopes that he will be remembered there. If he dies on foreign soil, he confesses, his spirit will return to England. The canto concludes with Byron’s famous apostrophe, or address, to the ocean.

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