The crucial fact about Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage is that it is a poem. In many ways it is the archetypal first approximation of a romantic poem, both for Lord Byron’s contemporaries and disciples and for an understanding of English romanticism’s conception of the relationship between nature and literature. The question always to keep in mind about Childe Harold is why Byron would write a combination travelogue, political tract, autobiography, lamentation, and paean to nature as a poem, and why such a poem should be so spectacularly popular. These are the basic questions of romanticism.
Byron famously woke up to find himself famous after the publication of cantos I and II of Childe Harold when he was 24. Those cantos are more or less the poetic journal of a trip Byron took with friends (in particular his close confidant John Cam Hobhouse) through the regions of Europe not occupied by Napoleon Bonaparte’s French forces; the areas held by Napoleon were enemy territory for an Englishman. Accordingly, Byron traveled through Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, whose Ottoman Empire extended over Greece, and Byron would die championing the cause of Greek independence, the loss of which he laments in Childe Harold.
Indeed, the poem is about the meaning of freedom in all its forms—personal, political, poetic. In canto I, Byron joins with William Wordsworth and with a host of others to heap scorn on the Convention of Cintra, the terms by which the British bureaucracy agreed to allow the French forces Admiral Arthur Wellesley had soundly defeated in Portugal in 1808 (a major incident in the Peninsular War against Napoleon) to leave Portugal and Spain with their loot intact. For Byron, Britain was on the right side of the Peninsular War, since Napoleon had come to represent conquest and tyranny. He accordingly celebrates Iberian resistance to Napoleon’s superior forces, and throughout Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage he takes the side of the conquered over their conquerors.
In particular, this takes the form of commitment to Greek independence, a cause for which Byron would later fight and die. In the poem, what he sees everywhere he goes is emptiness and loss. In Greece the loss is that of the glorious past and the great writers who belong to that past; in Albania it is the sublime emptiness of the wilderness. Everywhere it is the indifference of time and fate and nature to human ambition. Byron’s predilection for battlefields (which he explicitly mentions in a footnote to canto III) is for them as a place in which the most intense passion and pain display their ultimate pointlessness.
It is this sense of pointlessness—to be found in the ultimate insignificance of poetry as well as of political power—that Byron finds everywhere. The work of the poem is to transmute that feeling into one of freedom. Harold, who barely exists in the poem (he was originally to be called Burun, the old spelling of the Byron family name), is attempting to escape his own past by leaving England for the wastes of ocean and of a fabulous elsewhereness. He is Byron reduced to his own poetic perception, judgment, and feeling, “The wandering outlaw of his own dark mind” (III, l. 20). Indeed, Byron sees him as a kind of avatar by whose creation he can transform his nothingness into “A being more intense,” by an apprehension of that very nothingness, “feeling still with thee”—his fictional avatar Harold—“in my crush’d feelings’ dearth” (III, ll. 47–54).
All experience testifies to the nothingness that affords Byron the intensity of its own apprehension: “There is a very life in our despair” (III, l. 298). The final defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo, the battlefield Byron visits in canto III (and describes in a passage that will incite William Makepeace Thackeray’s great Waterloo scene in Vanity Fair), the later autobiographical projection he undertakes in his praise of “the selftorturing sophist, wild Rousseau” (III, l. 725; cantos III and IV are significant influences on Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Triumph of Life, which also contains a memorable account of the French philosopher JeanJacques Rousseau, perhaps the first romantic) all lead to the placement of nature above any human significance. As Byron explains in one of his many footnotes, which are essential to the poem’s integrity, when describing the scenery of the Alps where Rousseau set his novel Julie: “If Rousseau had never written, nor lived, the same associations would not less have belonged to such scenes. He has added to the interest of his works by their adoption; he has shown his sense of their beauty by the selection; but they have done that for him which no human being could do for them” (note to III, l. 940).
This is a telling claim. When canto III of Childe Harold came out, Wordsworth complained about Byron (who, like Shelley, is often talking about the still-living Wordsworth when he refers to Rousseau) that his hymn to nature was derived from Tintern Abbey. There is much justice in this claim. Byron had described himself in canto II as the child of nature, as “Her neverwean’d, though not her favour’d child” (II, l. 328). If we take Wordsworth to be her favorite child (as he himself often claimed), then we can see that Byron’s relationship to nature is not quite Wordsworthian. For Wordsworth, it is nature that instills within him his vocation as a poet, even if in the end he can transcend nature and plumb the depths of his own soul. Indeed, it is that exploration of selfhood that makes poetic vocation greater and deeper than the experience of nature that catalyzes it. But for Byron, nature is greater than the poet who celebrates her. Poetry is our trivial human way of recording our experience of nature. However, nature is all in all. (Shelley’s “Mont Blanc,” written during the summer he and Byron both visited the mountain and the surrounding regions, is a kind of rebuttal of this conclusion.)
The odd and paradoxical effect of Childe Harold is that it testifies to the most important fact about Byron as a poet: Unlike any of the other romantics, he did not imagine being a poet as a transcendent fact. His refusal of such a claim is part of his greatness, but it is a refusal nonetheless. In comparing himself with Napoleon and with Rousseau, he is acknowledging the ultimate triviality of what he is doing, even while using the language of overweening pride. His poetry is more fully about nature than that of any other romantic poet, because it is least about the depths of selfhood. Of course, Byron’s overwhelming and intoxicating personality can be felt in every page he writes. But he refuses to go deep, and this refusal returns us to the nature and freedom from self that he found in nature. Poetry is for Byron a means, and not an end: a means to finding freedom finally in the nature it celebrates. It is this fact—most palpable in Childe Harold—that displays both Byron’s greatness and his limitations. Those limitations are the very subject of his poetry; they are what make it great, and they are also where he finds the freedom to be overwhelming and intoxicating, a freedom he preferred to the implacable demands of the uncompromising poetic vocation of the other romantics.
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