Lord Byron was one of the greatest poets of the Romantic Era of British literature. He was a rebel, a malcontent, and a traveler. While Byron was writing Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, he was himself traveling; he visited all of the places he described in the poem. When the first two cantos were published in 1812, he became an overnight sensation. The poem made Byron famous in Europe. It was favorably reviewed in the leading periodicals of the time and translated into many languages.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is a poetic journal, recording what Byron, as Harold, sees, learns, and feels as he travels. Immediacy is provided by the use of the present tense. The poem is subtitled A Romaunt, and it is a romance in the sense of a narrative of adventure. It was published in three sections, over a span of six years, and Byron wrote other works in between. Since the poem first appeared, critics have disagreed as to its meaning and whether it should be considered as two separate poems, or even three. The first two cantos (the equivalent of chapters in prose) were published together in 1812 and are as much a travelogue as they are the story of a pilgrimage. Byron interrupts his narrative regularly to make political and sociological comments about his own time. Canto 3 (pb. 1916) and Canto 4 (pb. 1918) are also travelogues with commentaries about Byron’s present. The cantos vary in length, ranging from 93 stanzas in the first to 186 stanzas in the fourth. Contained within the cantos are additional lyric poems, such as “Good Night” in Stanza 13 and “To Inez” in Stanza 84 of Canto 1.
According to his preface to the first two cantos, Byron intended the poem to be a long narrative poem in the style (and even the meter) of Edmund Spenser, a sixteenth century English poet. Using ancient forms was an interest of the Romantic poets such as John Keats, who wrote “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” (1820) as a ballad, using archaic language. In Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the language of the first two cantos is deliberately archaic. Byron uses Middle English words such as “whilome” and “hight,” and the very title is intended to lend a medieval flavor to the work: “Childe” was originally a term used to refer to a young man approaching knighthood. Consequently, it is an appropriate word to describe Harold, since a knight’s duty is to go on quests.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is in the tradition of a romantic quest, a mission that will prove the hero’s courage and test his moral values. However, Harold, a libertine and cynic, is no medieval knight. On one level, the poem tells the story of Harold’s journey, but “pilgrimage” is probably an inappropriate word for this journey. Harold never searches for anything specific; rather, he runs away from his past and tries, in the process, to find some meaning in life.
Although the poem is written in Spenserian stanzas and uses archaic language, there is a visible change in the meter and language beginning with Canto 3. By this canto, much of the archaic language is gone, and the verse itself begins to flow more naturally. Finally, in Canto 4, the medieval language is almost entirely gone, replaced by the language that Byron spoke himself. Only a few outmoded words remain to preserve some of the flavor of the earlier sections and try to give some coherence to the whole.
Travelogues were popular literary forms in the early nineteenth century, but Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is more than a travelogue. It is like a diary in which Harold not only writes about places and people but also comments on the beauty of nature and human activities through history. The focus of these comments ranges from the creativity of ancient writers to a critique of the evolving political order in contemporary Europe. The poem includes reflections on nature and on social institutions, which are characteristic concerns of the Romantic poets. There are also powerful political messages, most of them having to do with the...
(The entire section is 1,602 words.)