Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 466
For a quick technical breakdown, it’s a narrative poem comprising four cantos—the word for sections of a long poem—and is written from the point-of-view of a childe, meaning “young knight in training.” It is also a travelogue (a piece of writing about a period of travel) written during Byron’s own travels and mirroring many of his thoughts and feelings about his personal life and the current culture of his country in relation to others. Byron tackles huge subjects—Napoleon, the Roman Empire, the rise and decline of empires—and yet the work consistently comes back to Byron’s experiences. Also worth noting is that in Byron’s early scripts, the poem was named Childe Burun—an earlier spelling of Byron.
The word “pilgrimage” in the title points to a journey of religious and/or spiritual significance. This poem speaks to what seems to be a common human desire: to travel and to find out about other cultures and their histories in order to gain intimacy with one’s own self.
To consider Childe Harold's Pilgrimage from a formal perspective, the poem is divided into two parts. The first and second cantos comprise Byron’s travels, starting around 1812, in Spain, Albania, and Greece. The third and fourth cantos comprise Byron’s travels during and after the breakup of his marriage in Belgium and up the Rhine to Switzerland’s Alps. He moved on to Italy, writing the fourth canto while living in Venice. These were some of his more tumultuous years in terms of personal relationships.
Harold comes though as both melancholy and hopeful, learned and questioning. Although Byron claimed that Harold was a fictional character, the poem takes frequent departures into Byron’s own history. His departure from the fictional is, at times, less obvious and, at other times, completely transparent. It is particularly evident in parts such as his lamentations of situations in his own life; an example of this is his estrangement from his daughter, Ada. This is the subject of the first stanza of the third canto, written during the ending of his marriage—Ada was the daughter of that marriage. This is an example of how Byron may have used the pilgrimage of his character to reveal to himself and his audience both his own grief and some hope for the future:
And then we parted,—not as now we part,
But with a hope—
Lastly, the fourth canto contains one of the more frequently quoted stanzas. The line “There is a pleasure in the pathless woods” in particular is one of the most popular lines quoted from the work. The stanza deals with coming back to nature, reconnecting with oneself and one’s existence as it relates to nature, and solitude—enriching, satisfying solitude, rather than loneliness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 687
In Canto 1, Bryon introduces Childe Harold, a young English nobleman who has been wasting his life with drinking, idleness, and making love to unsuitable women. The woman he does love he cannot have. Despondent, he leaves his family, his family home, his heritage. and his lands to travel, albeit with no clear destination. Perhaps, he thinks, he will find happiness and some meaning to his life once he leaves England.
Leaving, he sings a mournful song—the poem “Good Night”—bidding farewell to his homeland, to his parents, and to his wife and sons. Harold encourages the young page who accompanies him over the ocean not to be afraid. When Harold lands on the shore of Portugal, he finds himself moved in strange and unexpected ways. He begins exploring the land on horseback, moving aimlessly in search of his destiny, and he wanders into the mountains northeast of Lisbon, to Cintra, the site of the Convention that allowed the defeated French army to withdraw intact. Harold comments on the disgrace of this event. He makes many such comments on political events. He also reflects on the scenery, finding the land beautiful but the people dirty and immoral. Harold laments on the sorry state of these men and women who live in such a beautiful land. He continues into Spain.
In Spain, Harold is again thrilled by the magnificence of the scenery but appalled at the depths to which the civilization has fallen. His first real understanding of human cruelty occurs in Spain, where he watches a bullfight. He watches the cruelty of the humans tormenting the bull and the courage of the beast, who cannot understand why anyone would try to hurt it. The bullfight, as always, ends in the death of the bull but brings Harold no further in his quest to understand the meaning of his life.
Canto 2 shows Childe Harold’s first change of heart when he travels through Albania into Greece, meeting a great many people of various nationalities and religions. He finds the Albanians to be barbaric by his standards but in some ways nobler than the more civilized people he has encountered thus far. His spirits begin to rise as he realizes that, whatever the situation of civilization, there is still great hope as he witnesses both the wonders of nature and the goodness of humankind. However, at the end of the canto, reflecting on death and loss, Harold decides to return home and confront what he had left behind.
In Canto 3, Harold again leaves England, embarking on a second Grand Tour. He travels to Belgium, the Rhine, Switzerland, and the Alps. Harold reflects on the child, Ada, he has left behind, yet he embraces the continuance of his journey. It is at this point that the fiction of Harold is replaced by the reality of Byron’s own voice. This canto includes a description of Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo, as well as “Harold’s” commentary on Napoleon. In Germany, along the banks of the Rhine, Harold finally feels a sense of hope and begins to see some meaning in the human condition. He continues on his journey, exalting in the beauty of the Swiss Alps and sites that remind him of the courage of the human spirit. Harold reflects on Rousseau and his life and work. The canto concludes with verses to his daughter.
Canto 4 is prefaced by a letter to Byron’s friend John Hobhouse. Byron finally does away with the third-person narrator and speaks in the first person. He turns “from fiction to truth,” telling his own story. The canto begins with Bryon’s reflections while standing on the Bridge of Sighs in Venice. Bryon travels through the Italian countryside and the ancient cities that were once part of the Roman Empire. He comments on sites and on the people who lived there, average men, military leaders, and authors. His journey, like those of many pilgrims, ends in Rome. The stanzas on Rome constitute more than half of the canto. Finally, turning from cities and people, Bryon speaks about the ocean and declares his “task is done.”
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 669
*Spain. In canto 1, Childe Harold departs Albion, or England, and crosses the Bay of Biscay to Portugal and Spain, which has become the battleground for “Gaul’s,” or France’s, “unsparing lord” (Napoleon). Although Napoleon is dramatized as a conqueror justly condemned for his ruthlessness, he also represents a new force for freedom sweeping away Europe’s monarchies and rejuvenating its people. Harold himself is seeking precisely this kind of renewal. With Napoleon’s defeat “Britannia,” or England, “sickens,” Byron exclaims. He exhorts: “Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance!” Spain is no longer the land of chivalry; it is ruled by a corrupt king, a “bloated Chief,” and will soon be a conquered province over which European nations will squabble. The ebbing strength and nobility of cities such as Seville and Cádiz are lamented as Harold makes his way through the “nerveless state.”
*Greece. In canto 2, Harold visits the famous site of the Parthenon, a temple devoted to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. However, like Spain, Greece has been robbed of its glory. British marauders have taken away parts of the ancient building and defaced a shrine. All Greece has become a “sad relic of departed worth.” Seeking inspiration in the places of Western greatness, Harold finds only degradation as he traces Alexander the Great’s path through Albania and other parts of the Balkans.
*Belgium. In canto 3, the “self-exiled” Harold visits the “grave of France, the deadly Waterloo,” where Napoleon suffered his final defeat. In the aftermath of that great event, many of Europe’s monarchies were reestablished. From this scene of defeat Harold turns toward Switzerland and the places where great writers, such as Edward Gibbon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire, employed their “gigantic minds” to comprehend the tragedy of humanity. Indeed, Gibbon’s great work on the Roman Empire leads Byron to think of the degraded state of Italy, which provides yet another example of humanity’s fallen state and of Byron’s theme: “We are not what we have been . . . We are not what we should be.”
*Italy. Canto 4 begins in Venice, a magical city of great beauty, which seems to rise out of the water and yet is a site of disintegration with its palaces “crumbling to the shore.” Its great buildings, St. Mark’s Cathedral, for example, call to mind Venice’s history as an independent city-state, but now its freedom and glory are gone.
Certainly Italy remains a source of inspiration as Byron thinks of great writers such as Dante, who was associated with Florence, the Italian version of Athens. Italy is where Vergil wrote his poetry, but here also an empire was born and decayed, a fact that brings to mind Napoleon and France once again. France has “got drunk with blood to vomit crime,” but Rome is the very “field of freedom, faction, fame, and blood.” Nowhere is the scene of human achievement and defeat better seen than in Harold’s visit to the Roman Colosseum, which is an architectural wonder and a place of torture, where gladiators fought for sport.
Indeed Byron’s description of Rome’s Colosseum coalesces the poem’s sense of the importance of place: “While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand;/ When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall.” Each place Harold visits is an emblem of the human desire for permanence and achievement, yet each place is in ruins, an emblem of human defeat. That ruins and some historic structures such as the Roman Pantheon and St. Peter’s church and dome still stand evokes in Byron the hope that human greatness can be revived. Viewing St. Peter’s, Byron comments that “growing with its growth, we thus dilate/ Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.”
The pilgrim’s final resting place is the ocean, Byron emphasizes, which evokes the immensity of the world out of which man struggles to create and endure. Nature itself becomes the titanic force against which all human created places must be measured.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 343
Byron, George Gordon, Lord. Works. Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 13 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1966. Originally published between 1898 and 1904 in thirteen volumes, this is a complete collection of all Byron’s poetry and prose, along with extensive introductions and notes, both by the editor and by Byron himself. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage appears in volume 2.
Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A study of Byron’s reputation after death, exploring bitter and conflicting accounts by the wife he divorced and the sister he seduced.
Gleckner, Robert F. Byron and the Ruins of Paradise. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. A critical discussion of Byron’s viewpoint, as seen through his poetry. Byron’s views of natural beauty and human failings are emphasized. Two chapters are dedicated to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an excellent example of these feelings.
Jump, John D., ed. Byron: A Symposium. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. A collection of essays on Byron and his poetical works, by various authors. “The Poet of Childe Harold,” by Francis Berry, emphasizes the stylistic devices of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and other works Byron wrote during the same period, in relation to the works of his contemporaries and of later writers.
MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A biography that re-examines the life of the poet in the light of MacCarthy’s assertion that Byron was bisexual, a victim of early abuse by his nurse.
Marchand, Leslie A. Byron’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. A general introduction to Byron’s poetry, intended for twentieth century students and general readers. This book places Byron’s work in the context of the literary tradition he followed, the works of his contemporaries, and the historical times in which Byron lived.
Thorslev, Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. A study of the alienated antihero common in Romantic poetry, essentially created by Byron, especially in Childe Harold. Emphasis is placed on the historical background of Byron’s times.