Sunday, September 19, 2010

Introduction to Childe Harold by Byron

A Romaunt
In 1809 Byron, with his friend, John Cain Hobhourse, left England for a tour of Portugal, Spain, Malta, Albarnia, Greece and Turkey. When he returned, he had completed two cantos of a long, semi-autobio­graphical poem he called Childe Buriun’s* Pilgrimage. When his distant relative R.C. Dallas urged him to publish the poem, it was retitled Childe Harold’s Pil­grimage, and prepublication copies were carefully cir­culated among influential members of the nobility and other tastemakers. As Byron said, he awoke one mom-ing and found himself famous.

* The title ‘childe’ does not mean ‘child’ in our sense, but is rather a medieval term for a squire on the point of taking his vows of knighthood. Byron insisted, in the preface to the original poem, that it was not autobiograhical: “Harold is the child of imagination.” But his disclaimers were not taken seriously by the reading public and the identification of Harold with Byron was indeed largely responsible for the immense celebrity (and notoriety) into which the poem’s publication thrust him. And the original working title of the poem, which Byron composed during his tour of the Mediterranean and the Near East (1809-11) was Childe Burun-’Burun’ being an archaic form of Byron.
On the strength of Childe Harold, and then of the “Oriental” romances he published rapidly in the next three years, Byron from 1812 to 1815 enjoyed an al­most unprecedented celebrity in the literary and social world of England. Men and women alike wept at public readings of Childe Harold, popular illustrations of the gloomy exile Harold (usually exactly like Byron and often contemplating a gravestone) abounded. Not since Georthe’s 1774 novel of sentiment and despair The Sorrows of Young Werther, had a book caught suprecisely the tone of the age.
In 1815-16, however, Byron’s popularity weered toward immense notoriety. Starting from his disastrous marriage, socially ostracised because of his rumoured liaison with his half-sister Augusta Byron Leigh, Byron left England in 1816 never to return. And, in the first two years of his self-imposed exile, he completed the poem that had brought him his initial success, pub­lishing Canto III of Childe Harold in 1816 and Canto IV in 1818. The two later cantos have seemed to many critics powerful, more deeply honest in their articula­tion than the first two. And, certainly under the influ­ence of his newly-acquired fried Percy Bysshe Sheeley, Childe Harold Canto III represents Byron’s closest ap­proach to the prophetic strain of Romantic poetry. But a re-examination of Canto I of the poem rhows it, too, to be poetry of a very high-if idiosyncratic order.
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage purports to describe the travels and reflections of a pilgrim who sated and dis­gusted with a life of pleasure and revelry, seeks dis­traction in foreign lands. The first two cantos take the reader to Portugal, Spain, the Ionian Isles and Albania, and end with a lament on the bondage of Greece. In the third Canto the pilgrim passes to Belgium, the Rhine, the Alps and the Jura. The historical associa­tion of each place are made the poet’s theme, the Spanish War, the eve of Waterloo and Napoleon, and more especially Rousseau and Julie. In the fourth canto the poet abandons his imaginary pilgrim and speaks in his own person, of Venice, Arqua and Petrarch, Ferrara and Tasso, Florence and Boccacio Rome and her great men, from the Scipios to Remzi.The story of the progress of Childe Harold, how­ever, is not the story of Byron’s own fortunes and re­versals. Throughout his life Byron was an obsessive and voracious reader of history, and Harold is deeply imbued, throughout its course, with a sense of the events which were shaping the future of Europe as Byron wrote. In 1808 Napoleon, in an attempt to stran­gle Britain’s foreign markets, had attempted to occupy Portugal, a long standing British ally, and had met with unexpected resistance from the Portuguese, as well as with a newly efficient British army. Napoleon then removed the Spanish king from his throne, in­stalling his own brother Joseph-and found himself faced with a Spanish revolution of real ferocity. Thus began the Peninsular War (1808-14), which signalled the turning of the tide of conquest against Napoleon.
Napoleon’s defeat came in 1815 at Waterloo. But the aftermath of that defeat, the reconciliation of the old monarchies (symbolised by the return of the Bourbons to the throne of France) was, to many libertarians and revolutionaries grimmer threat to freedom than the unified Europe of Napoleon’s dream. So the “deepening of tone” readers have found in the last two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, however intimately it may be related to Byron’s own life, is also a result of the added complexity, melancholy and even grudging admiration the events of 1815-16 forced upon the poet’s conception of the flawed but titanic character of Napoleon.

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