Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, by Lord Byron
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is travel writing in the form of epic poem, a guide for the aristocratic tourist to carry with him across Southern Europe, with diversions into contemporary politics, thoughts on mortality and complaints about British looting of Greek artefacts (Byron’s not a fan of Elgin).
It’s surprisingly fun, once you get used to the style, with Byron’s own footnotes dotted through the text – filling in bits of colour or recommending the best angle to approach a particular view.
Childe Harold, in the first two cantos at least, is really just a framing device. He’s a “shameless wight” who has “spent his days in riot most uncouth” who leaves England because although just in his 20s he has “felt the fulness of satiety”, in other words he’s bored with his “concubines and carnal companie, And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.”
Driven by ennui, Childe Harold goes travelling, and once he does we barely hear of him again, he’s referred to on occasion to remind us it’s his story, but in the main it’s Byron addressing the reader directly, Harold almost forgotten. That means this is an epic poem largely without characters and without plot, it’s a good job Byron’s easy to get on with. It’s no surprise though that Byron’s contemporaries thought that Childe Harold was a thinly disguised self-portrait.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in three parts, Cantos I and II in 1812, Canto III in 1816 and Canto IV in 1818. The first pairing made Byron famous in his own day, apparently it’s III and IV where this talent truly shines though and it’s those for which people mainly still read the work today.
Anyway, back to the poem itself. I’ll come to the subject of style shortly, but first here’s an example pair of stanzas discussing sights to see while in Portugal:
Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s house of woe;1
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punish’d been, and lo!
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.
And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path:
Yet deem these not devotion’s offering –
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath:
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Pour’d forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life.2
It’s easy to picture some young man on his own Grand Tour holding a copy of that while climbing up that path, annotating the margin with his own observations. If you scroll down to where I’ve put the footnotes below, you’ll see too how Byron’s footnotes work with the text, expanding it, adding asides, generally making it all a bit more lively and personal. Half the fun of Childe Harold is the footnotes, which incidentally makes it very important which edition you get as most don’t bother including them. I’ll link to the edition I recommend at the end, but I would say this is a time not to go with Project Gutenberg or any print on demand versions, which generally only have the poem itself.
As the poem continues, Byron continues to guide us along his travels, he visits sites of great battles, talks about French aggression towards the Spanish and the Ottoman occupation of Greece, he penetrates the Albanian interior and meets the famous Ali Pasha. It’s often glamorous stuff, written about in a frequently world-weary tone – a combination which must have been irresistible to the less travelled people of his day. Hell, it’s hard to resist now.
Here Byron writes about the battle of Talavera, then recent current affairs rather than history. Byron later lent critical support to the Greeks in their war of independence against the Ottomans, so he wasn’t a pacifist, but as the following stanzas (and his subsequent reference to the troops as “Ambition’s honour’d fools!”) show he was deeply sceptical to claims of the glory of war:
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mix’d embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share;
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can number their array.
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies;
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met – as if at home they could not die –
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilize the field that each pretends to gain.
One of the surprising things about Childe Harold is how modern many of its sensibilities are. Byron is passionate about freedom, democracy, rights of self-governance. His sympathies lie with people who wish to run their own lives, and against those who wish to conquer others. He’s angry at bigotry and sceptical of religion, at times openly atheistic and though he tolerates various faiths it’s clear that as a rule he doesn’t see much to choose between them. If it wasn’t too modern a term, I’d call him a humanist:
Sun of the morning, rise! Approach you here!
Come – but molest not yon defenceless urn
Look on this spot – a nation’s sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.
Even gods must yield – religions take their turn:
‘Twas Joves – ‘tis Mahomet’s – and other creeds
Will rise with other years, till man shall learn
Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds;
Poor child of Doubt and Death, whose hope is built on reeds.
Bound to the earth, he lifts his eyes to heaven –
Is’t not enough, unhappy thing! to know
Thou art? Is this a boon so kindly given?
That being, thou would’st be again, and go,
Thou knows’t not, recks’t not to what region, so
On earth no more, but mingled with the skies?
Still wilt thou dream on future joy and woe?
Regard and weigh yon dust before it flies:
That little urn saith more than thousand homilies.
What’s perhaps less modern is a definite pastoralism, a romanticism (but then of course he is the great romantic hero). Men’s lives are short and petty things, empires fall, glory is lost in the dust of the battlefield, gods are barely longer lived than those who worship them, but nature remains. In nature there is a solace that cannot be found elsewhere, a cleansing balm, reconnection with nature lends perspective and a deeper enjoyment than is available in any lehman’s bed.
The romantic movement is not one I’m strong on, but I do understand that it elevates nature, the concept of the fall remains from Christian thought but is recast as a fall from a natural rather than divine state. Our civilised aspects divorce us from that which is most true (Chateaubriand is big on this). That theme runs through these cantos too. Harold, Byron, is jaded by pleasures at home and unimpressed by martial scenes and great deeds, but solitude and contemplation of the natural revives him:
Ne city’s towers pollute the lovely view;
Unseen is Yanina, though not remote,
Veil’d by the screen of hills: here men are few.
Scanty the hamlet, rare the lonely cot:
But peering down each precipice, the goat
Browseth; and, pensive o’er his scatter’d flock,
The little shepherd in his white Capote3
Doth lean his boyish form along the rock,
Or in his cave awaits the tempest’s short-lived shock.
In terms of readability, it’s fair to say it took me a while to adapt to the style of the work. For the first hour or so I was aware of the structure of the poem, I was thrown by lines not scanning as I expected, part of me still working out the rules. You may find the same if you try it. It’s worth sticking with though, because after I pushed myself through that barrier, it became natural, it flowed. Now, when I read it, I read it as easily as prose, but that didn’t happen straightaway. Poetry is its own language, the rewards are there but I found I had to invest a little time learning how to get them out. It’s best if you’re not already used to reading this sort of work to bear that in mind, have a little patience and persist a little longer than perhaps you might otherwise be inclined to.
Stylistically, well, I’m not versed enough in poetry to talk effectively about technique, but it’s fair to say he wrote better later. This is good, it flows well and the imagery is sometimes striking, but it lacks the power of those parts of Cantos III and IV I’ve looked at. In some ways that makes it an excellent entry point to Byron’s work, it’s good enough to show his talent but doesn’t spoil you for the better works to come.
In the end, this is a warm and human work. It’s chatty, in the footnotes, and its descriptions of Southern Europe are interesting and entertaining. Some of the asides are lost on me, I’m just not as familiar with the Napoleonic wars as people who lived at the time obviously would be, and I don’t have the richness of Classical education Byron assumes in his readers, but I found that if I didn’t worry about getting every reference it didn’t matter – I got enough to make it still rewarding. It’s also a fascinating insight into a world at times very different to our own (at one point Byron falls into a fever, and credits his recovery to his guards holding off his physician at knifepoint so preventing the likely lethal treatment of the age), and at other times strangely familiar:
Or Wahab’s rebel brood who dared divest
The prophet’s4 tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West;
The edition I have is a Penguin Classics imprint, containing a wide range of his poems, not just Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. It’s edited by Susan J Wolfson and Peter J Manning, and is up to Penguin’s usual high standards. As I’ve said a couple of times now, the footnotes and endnotes are essential, here they’re reproduced in full, as they should be. I’ll be reading Cantos III and IV, from the same edition, in the coming month or so. Byron spaced them out, I’m comfortable doing the same.
1. The convent of ‘Our Lady of Punishment,’ Nossa Señora de Pena, on the summit of the rock. Below, at some distance, is the Cork Convent, where St Honorius dug his den, over which is his epitaph. From the hills the sea adds to the beauty of the view. – [Since the publication of this poem, I have been informed of the misapprehension of the term Nossa Señora de Pena. It was owing to the want of the tilde, or mark over the eñ which alters the signification of the word: with it, Peña signifies a rock; without it, Pena has the sense I adopted. I do not think it necessary to alter the passage; as though the common acceptation offered to it is ‘Our Lady of the Rock,’ I may well assume the other sense from the severities practised there. – Note to 2nd Edition.]
2. It is a well known fact, that in the year 1809, the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen, but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend: had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have ‘adorned a tale’ instead of telling one. The crime of assassination is not confined to Portugal: in Sicily and Malta we are knocked on the head at a handsome average nightly, and not a Sicilian or Maltese is ever punished!
3. Albanese cloak.
4. Mecca and Medina were taken some time ago by the Wahabees, a sect yearly increasing.