Childe Harold's Pilgrimage "Years Steal Fire From The Mind"

Lord George Gordon Byron

"Years Steal Fire From The Mind"

(Magill's Quotations in Context)

Context: One reason for the importance of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is that here for the first time is introduced the Byronic hero, who will reappear in half-a-dozen of his narrative poems, always with the same characteristics. He is a true romantic, satiated with life's pleasures, disgusted with civilized society, and though in love with some gentle woman, takes pride in suppressing all tender feelings. A deep regret over some youthful crime usually embitters his thoughts. This inherent melancholia was one reason for the poem's instant success. Elaborate descriptions of nature in exotic oriental countries added charm for its readers. Childe Harold ("Childe" meaning "Young Lord") is the chief character of a sort of travel book in verse, following the itinerary Byron himself took in the summer of 1809, in company with his friend John Cam Hobhouse (1786–1869). Instead of the usual postgraduate Grand Tour of France and Italy, Byron went through the Mediterranean as far as Greece and Turkey. After his return to England, the first two cantos were published, in 1812. The furor over them added to his charm and helped his courtship of Miss Anna Isabella Milbanke, a well-educated country girl, much given to moralizing. Immediately following the wedding, in January, 1815, Byron realized he had made a mistake and so did she. No reason was ever given for their separation, though some suspect it was her discovery of improper relations between Byron and his half-sister, Augusta Leigh. In any case, a few weeks after the birth of his daughter, Ada, he left his wife and England. Following his departure came a storm of gossip that settled on him the reputation for dissoluteness. He traveled to Switzerland, where he spent the summer with Shelley and had an affair with Mary Shelley's sister, Jane Clairmont. Here he wrote the third canto of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, that was published in 1816. Canto III is the most admired part of the poem. It opens with a message to his daughter Ada, whom he had not seen since she was five weeks old. Does she look like her mother? He declares himself "once more upon the waters" that are taking him away from England. Long ago, in his "youth's summer," he had first sung about Harold. How greatly things have changed since then! But he has retained one of his old traits, "the strength to bear what time cannot abate,/ and feed on bitter fruits without accusing Fate." So, too, has his hero Harold changed, and in stanza 8 the poet comments on the changes:

Something too much of this; but now 'tis past,
And the spell closes with its silent seal.
Long absent Harold re-appears at last;
He of the breast which fain no more would feel,
Wrung with the wounds which kill not but ne'er heal;
Yet Time, who changes all, had alter'd him
In soul and aspect as in age; years steal
Fire from the mind as vigor from the limb,
And life's enchanted cup but sparkles near the brim.