Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1602
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 decadence Byron perceived in his own times as compared to the glorious past of ancient Greece and Rome. At a deeper level, Byron explores the question of human identity itself.
Many critics have insisted that, in Childe Harold, Byron was merely fictionalizing his own life. In his preface to the first two cantos, Byron insists that the narrator, Childe Harold, is fictitious. In the manuscript version of the cantos, however, the hero is named Childe Burun, an early form of Byron’s family name. After reading the reviews of the poem, Bryon wrote the “Addition to the Preface” in 1813, affirming that Harold was a “fictitious personage.” However, Byron and Harold have much in common. This becomes increasingly obvious in the third and fourth cantos. In his 1818 letter to Hobhouse, prefacing Canto 4, Byron finally states what critics and readers have already surmised: that Childe Harold is Byron. In the introduction to Canto 4, Byron virtually disowns Harold, explaining that since almost everyone seems to assume that he is Byron’s alter ego, there is no longer any point to keeping up the pretense.
It is essential to view Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in its historical context. When it was written, the French Revolution had failed and Napoleon had assumed the robes of emperor. These events deeply disappointed the idealistic Romantics, who had seen the French Revolution and Napoleon as beacons leading the way to a bright new era of Republican liberty, equality, and brotherhood. Although Byron and many of his contemporaries longed for bygone days, they also emphasized the dignity of humankind and the importance of equality. The rise of Napoleon, his subsequent fall, and the return of the French monarchy were tragedies, as was the destruction of many ancient works and the barbarism of the Reign of Terror. Canto 3, in the stanzas on Waterloo, reflects on that battle and questions whether the earth is “more free” because of Napoleon’s defeat, or whether the defeat of one tyrant simply means a return to an older tyranny. Like other liberals, such as William Blake and Percy Bysshe Shelley, Byron was against any type of tyranny. Some critics see Canto 4 as a political poem and a plea that Italy, which during Bryon’s time was a collection of states, be recognized as a cultural whole and throw off the tyranny of Austrian rule. Like other Romantic poets, Byron decries the unnaturalness of a people and a land subjected to an outside authority.
The influence of this poem on later literature has been great. There are no earlier or later versions of the specific tale, but its echoes are immense. In Childe Harold, the “Byronic hero” was born, a literary device that has lasted to the present day. The Byronic hero is essentially an antihero, alienated and rebellious. He is moody, passionate, and remorseful. Harold sees himself as a “wandering outlaw,” and it is characteristic of this antihero that he needs to be forever traveling, trying to assuage his “deep hurt.” The Byronic hero is full of guilt for past deeds yet is unrepentant. In Canto 1, the character of Harold is self-indulgent and judgmental, but he becomes more human and sympathetic to others as his pilgrimage continues. Harold is deeply affected by a series of losses at the end of Canto 2, reflecting Byron’s own loss of his mother and two close friends, who died while he was traveling. Canto 3, which is the emotional center of the poem, provides a clear picture of the Bryronic hero. It begins with a heartfelt goodbye to his daughter Ada and England, as Harold once again departs into voluntary exile, echoing Byron’s own final departure from England in 1816. Speaking more as Byron himself than as his character, he says goodbye to his daughter Augusta Ada, born a month before Bryon and his wife Annabella Milbanke separated. He never sees her again.
Canto 3 also includes stanzas describing the poet. Characteristic of Romantics such as Shelley, Bryon escapes into poetry. For him, writing is therapeutic, and in the poem his personal limitations are transcended. In creating the poem, the poet gains as he gives his ideas the physical form of words. As Harold, Byron sees himself as a rebel with little in common with humankind. He will not “yield dominion of his mind” to others, and he feels that he has little in common with others and can live his life “without mankind.” Again, in the Romantic tradition, Harold finds companionship in nature; the mountains and the ocean are both friends and a home. Echoing Shelley, Bryon describes nature as speaking a language he can share and, like William Wordsworth, the hero finds solace and renewal in nature.
As a part of the Romantic tradition, Bryon creates a poet hero whose ultimate gift to humankind is the poem. Much like Shelley, Byron realizes how the poem itself can communicate his ideas beyond his lifetime. In Canto 3, stanzas 113 through 118, Bryon again restates the position of the hero, alone and apart from the world. He repeats that the poem is his gift to Ada, his lost “child of love,” and prays, since she can never know him, that she might discover him through his words.
Ultimately, Byron’s basic goal in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is to explore the nature of humankind and humanity’s relation to nature. The descriptions of natural and ancient architectural beauty are moving and are fine examples of Romantic poetry. Byron’s long forays into social criticism are even more fascinating. For Harold (Byron), the poem chronicles a journey from despair to self-renewal.
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