Context: Childe Harold, in Byron's poem, is the poet himself. The poem is a long one which took seven years to complete; it depicts a man who is weary of the world and who wanders over the face of it, fleeing from himself. The term "childe" is a title of honor which, in the days of chivalry, was given to noble youths who were candidates for knighthood; the candidate so honored bore this title throughout his probationary period, which usually involved a pilgrimage of some sort. The poem recounts Byron's experiences and impressions during his travels–Portugal and Spain in Canto I, Turkey in Canto II, Belgium and Switzerland in Canto III. In the fourth Canto he visits Venice, Rome, and Florence. In Venice he stands on the Bridge of Sighs and contemplates the fading glory of this great old city. In imagination he sees the history and magnificence that have passed; mentions the fact that he is an expatriate, misses his birthplace but is content to be buried in a foreign land. To Byron, Italy is still "the garden of the world, the home/ Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree;" even the wreckage of her greatness is a glory. He pays tribute to the great Italian poets, and moving on to Rome, speaks of various landmarks along the way. For the Eternal City he reserves his greatest praise. The reference to Niobe likens Rome to the Niobe of Greek legend, who was daughter of Tantalus and wife of Amphion, King of Thebes. She was proud of her twelve children and taunted the goddess Latona, who had only two, Apollo and Diana. Latona commanded her own children to avenge the insult, and they caused all twelve of Niobe's children to die. Niobe was inconsolable and wept herself to death; afterward she was changed into a stone from which water ran like tears. Niobe is thus the personification of maternal sorrow. Two stanzas of Byron's tribute follow:
Oh Rome, my country! city of the soul!The orphans of the heart must turn to thee,Lone mother of dead empires! and controlIn their shut breasts their petty misery.What are our woes and sufferance? Come and seeThe cypress, hear the owl, and plod your wayO'er steps of broken thrones and temples, Ye!Whose agonies are evils of a day–A world is at our feet as fragile as our clay.The Niobe of Nations! there she stands,Childless and crownless, in her voiceless woe;An empty urn within her wither'd hands,Whose holy dust was scatter'd long ago:The Scipios' tomb contains no ashes now;The very sepulchres lie tenantlessOf their heroic dwellers;–dost thou flow,Old Tiber, through a marble wilderness?Rise, with thy yellow waves, and mantle her distress!