Childe Harold's Pilgrimage "Sapping A Solemn Creed With Solemn Sneer"

Lord George Gordon Byron

"Sapping A Solemn Creed With Solemn Sneer"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: Four years after writing the first two cantos of a travel book based on Byron's own postgraduate Grand Tour to Europe and the Orient, the poet began a sequel that turned out to be greatly superior to his first effort. Canto III, written while he was spending a summer in Switzerland with the Shelley family, presents the Byronic hero Childe (that is, Young Lord) Harold, standing on the spot where Wellington crushed Napoleon the year before. Byron contrasts the revelry by night before Waterloo with the massacre of friends and foes in one red burial afterward. He ponders on the personality of Napoleon whose downfall, like his rise, came because he did not seek a golden mean. Harold is full of melancholic thoughts. He who ascends the mountains will find "the loftiest peaks most wrapped in clouds." He who subdues his fellow men will be the target of their hatred. Then the traveler turns from men to ponder on nature. Going down the Rhine, he is led by sight of the castles to think of the bloodshed there, washed away by time. Lake Leman (Geneva) makes him think that "there is too much of man here," though he is reminded of Rousseau, who lived there and there had his loves. Passing through Lausanne and Ferney, Harold recalls Voltaire and the English historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon (1737–1794). Finally he reaches Italy where he decides: "I have not loved the world nor the world me." However, Byron concludes the canto with the 118th stanza, remembering his "child of love," Ada, and sending his blessings back to her. Having been reminded in Stanza 105 of Voltaire and Gibbon, he devotes Stanza 106 to Voltaire and 107 to Gibbon. In 107, he declares that the historian gathered material exhaustively, then cuttingly attacked what Gibbon regarded as the outworn creed of Christianity, undermining it by his irony. Perhaps the series of "s's" in the line was to imitate the hiss of scorn. The defenders of Christianity retaliated by damning Gibbon as an atheist.

The other, deep and slow, exhausting thought,
And hiving wisdom with each studious year,
In meditation dwelt, with learning wrought,
And shaped his weapon with an edge severe,
Sapping a solemn creed with solemn sneer;
The lord of irony,–that master-spell,
Which stung his foes to wrath which grew from fear,
And doom'd him to the zealot's ready Hell,
Which answers to all doubts so eloquently well.