Childe Harold is Byron's longest poem after the comic epic Don Juan. It has four cantos written in Spenserian stanzas, which consist of eight iambic pentameter lines followed by a one alexandrine (a twelve syllable iambic line), and rhyme ababbcbcc. The need to find four b rhymes and three c rhymes, and to manage the central and the final couplets, make this a difficult stanza to write in, but Byron claimed that he selected it because it “admits of every variety”. He started writing the poem on his European tour in 1809-11 and when the first two cantos were published in 1812 they propelled him more or less immediately to the height of fame. When he returned to the poem in 1816 his scandalous separation from his wife had forced him to leave England under a cloud of public disapprobation. He was once more travelling in Europe, but this time he was less of a tourist and more of an exile, and he would not return to England until his corpse was shipped home in 1824.
Byron wrote in his preface that he created the character of Childe Harold “for the sake of giving some connexion to the piece”, but the poem's first readers saw Harold as a version of Byron and indeed in the earliest manuscripts he is called “Childe Burun”. There is, however, an important distinction between the attitudes of Harold and those of the poem's narrator, even if their voices are sometimes difficult to separate. Harold is jaded and misanthropic, while the narrator is more impressed by the sights the poem visits and is sometimes given to ironic moralising about Harold's boredom. The Europe they traverse together combines scenes of classical antiquity that Byron had become familiar with through his privileged education at Harrow School and Cambridge University, with contemporary political upheavals, popular tourist destinations and – in the later cantos – objective correlatives for Byron's mental state.
When the first two cantos were published in March 1812 they created such a sensation that Byron said, according to Thomas Moore, that he awoke one morning to find himself famous. Carriages blocked the street delivering invitations to fashionable balls and dinners, and the Duchess of Devonshire wrote that Byron was “really the only topic almost of conversation”. The expensive first edition of the poem sold out immediately and was displayed on the tables of the most fashionable houses. Why did the poem succeed so spectacularly? There were a number of reasons. Firstly, it had been impossible to travel on the Continent for almost twenty years because Britain had been at war with France since 1793, with only a short truce, The Peace of Amiens, in 1802. This made the Grand Tour, which traditionally capped a young gentleman's education, out of the question. Byron's aristocratic rank and personal courage enabled him to travel through Portugal and Spain during the Peninsular War in which British troops led by Arthur Wellesley (later Duke of Wellington) defeated Napoleon's invading army. British readers were keen to hear news from the war zone. Secondly, Byron had penetrated further into Albania than perhaps any other Englishman, visiting the court of Ali Pasha. His description of this experience tapped into the contemporary popularity of Oriental scenes and themes. Thirdly, there was the author himself. Aristocratic, glamorous and moving in the most elevated social circles, his racy religious scepticism and frankly democratic politics made him a source of fascination. Lady Caroline Lamb famously described him as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”.
The first two cantos make use not only of Spenser's stanza, but also of his self-consciously archaic diction. Especially at the beginning of the first canto, Byron weaves in a number of amusingly quaint obsolete words; for example in the second stanza:
Whilome in Albion's isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vex'd with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah me! In sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.
The use of archaic words like “Whilome” (once), which occurs in the first line of Spenser's Faerie Queene, “ne” (never), “in sooth” (truly), “wight” (fellow, bloke) and “wassailers” (party-goers), and the self-consciously old-fashioned spelling “companie”, place this stanza in a tradition of ironic Spenserianism. There was a revival of interest in Spenser by both scholarly commentators and poetic imitators in the second half of the eighteenth century, and James Thomson's poem The Castle of Indolence was a particular influence on Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. Like Thomson, Byron included some private jokes in his poem for the benefit of his friends. The seventh stanza describes the revelry at Harold's ancestral home:
Monastic dome! condemned to uses vile!
Where Superstition once had made her den
Now Paphian girls were known to sing and smile;
And monks might deem their time was come agen,
If ancient tales say true, nor wrong these holy men.
This recalls a party Byron threw for some friends from Cambridge in 1809 at his home, Newstead Abbey. The house includes the ruins of a pre-reformation monastery and at Byron's party the guests amused themselves by dressing up in monastic robes. These kind of personal allusions gave the poem another level of meaning, which would be fully understandable only to certain readers.
But by the time Byron published the first two cantos, some of those readers were dead. Byron's mother died at the beginning of August 1811, aged forty-six, after Byron had arrived back in England but before he had seen her. On 3 August Byron's Cambridge friend Charles Skinner Matthews was drowned while swimming in the Cam. By 10 August Byron had learnt of his schoolfriend John Wingfield's death, and in October news reached him that John Edelston, the Cambridge choirboy to whom he had been passionately attached, had died in May. When revising the poem, Byron inserted an elegy for Wingfield and a tribute to Matthews in a note, and added some disconsolate concluding stanzas that effectively changed the character of the whole poem. For want of anyone else to address, he apostrophises himself in Canto Two stanza 94:
Hast sooth'd thine idlesse with inglorious lays,
Soon shall thy voice be lost amid the throng
Of louder minstrels in these later days:
To such resign the strife for fading bays –
Ill may such contest now the spirit move
Which heeds nor keen reproach nor partial praise;
Since cold each kinder heart that might approve,
And none are left to please when none are left to love.
These more sad and serious elements combined with the ironic Spenserianism to produce the complex whole of the first two cantos, and to propel Byron into the public eye.
His position in the public eye meant that the public was curious when Byron separated from his wife in 1816, after a year of marriage. Gossip about the separation circulated widely, cartoons depicting Byron appeared in newspapers and speculation about the shocking hidden cause of the split was rife. Byron was snubbed in the same circles where he had been feted, and the situation was only made worse when he published a number of short poems on his domestic circumstances. Driven from England, he spent the summer of 1816 in Switzerland at the Villa Diodati, where he saw Percy and Mary Shelley regularly. It was here that Mary Shelley began to write Frankenstein and that Byron returned to Childe Harold to add a third canto. Byron was determined to reject the audience who had first wooed and then snubbed him and to make it clear that he didn't need their praise. He produces a posture of studied indifference to his readers:
I have not flatter'd its rank breath, nor bow'd
To its idolatries a patient knee,
Nor coin'd my cheek to smiles, nor cried aloud
In worship of an echo; in the crowd
They could not deem me one of such; I stood
Among them, but not of them; in a shroud
Of thoughts which were not their thoughts, and still could,
Had I not filed my mind, which thus itself subdued. (3, 113)
This is combined with a profession of faith in the therapeutic value of poetry; its ability to enhance the poet's life, not that of his audience. He asserts this conviction in the famous sixth stanza:
'Tis to create, and in creating live
A being more intense, that we endow
With form our fancy, gaining as we give
The life we image, even as I do now.
These lines evacuate all moments but the moment of creation, the “now” of the poet's pen on the page in the fourth line; they discard all effects the poem produces that are not effects on the poet and they value above all the poem's ability to produce intensity.
But this did not mean that Byron had stopped talking about political events; Canto Three also contains his response to the Battle of Waterloo (1815). Byron visited the battlefield, where he was shown the spot where his relation, Major Howard, had died. Taking Howard as a representative soldier, Byron mourns the war dead and admonishes the British for their triumphalism. Taking a line that was unwelcome to a nation recovering from twenty-two years of war, Byron warns his readers that unless Britain now acts to make the end of Napoleon's tyranny also the end of tyranny itself, then the dead will have died in vain. “What! shall reviving Thraldom again be / The patch'd-up idol of enlighten'd days?” He also considers the ways in which nature's cycles of renewal may be either comforting of saddening, either paralleling society's rejuvenation after periods of strife, or else drawing attention to the fact that, although nature revives, the war dead are gone forever. This partly reflects Percy Shelley's influence. Shelley encouraged Byron to read Wordsworth more sympathetically, and traces of Wordsworthian attitudes can be seen in the third canto, partly in the comments on nature at Waterloo, but mostly in the later descriptions of moments of mystic unity with nature: “Where not a beam, nor air, nor leaf is lost, / But hath a part of being, and a sense / Of that which is of all Creator and defence” (3, 89). This element is also noticeable in the description of the storm at the end of the canto, where there is an analogy between the natural tempest and Byron's tempestuous emotions.
In the fourth and final canto Byron turned his attention, for the most part, away from natural landscapes and features and towards works of art, and abandoned the character of Harold altogether, speaking apparently in his own voice (though of course his creation of this voice involved a process of self-construction that had been going on since the first cantos). In Canto Four Byron travels through Italy from Venice to Rome, where his self-dramatisation reaches a climax at the Coliseum. There he summons “Time, the avenger” to enforce a curse on those who have wronged him. But the curse comes in the form of his forgiveness. This apparently contradictory strategy enables Byron to appear wronged but magnanimous. While forgiving the wrongs he has suffered, he calls attention to them, rhetorically asking in stanza 135, “Have I not suffer'd things to be forgiven?” The forgiveness curse therefore conjures up precisely the wrongs that it claims finally to lay to rest.
Given Byron's claims to be independent of his audience in Canto Three, the extent to which Canto Four was manufactured for the poetic marketplace is ironic. Byron's friend John Cam Hobhouse wrote a companion volume of notes which was sold alongside the poem, and he suggested more and more works of art that Byron might respond to in his poem. Some of Rome's major sculptures and buildings were given the Byronic treatment, and the resulting poem was marketed not only together with Hobhouse's notes, but also with the tourist guidebooks that Byron's publisher John Murray was starting to produce. With Napoleon defeated the Continent was beginning to open up to tourists once again, and the aristocratic Grand Tour of the eighteenth century was being replaced by more extensive tourism among the gentry. Tourists could now stand in the same places Byron had stood, and read the lines he had written, which were often quoted in their guidebooks. Such synergised publication suggests the extent to which even Byron's most strident statements of poetic self-sufficiency could become trammelled in the poetic marketplace.
Critics disagree about the extent to which the four cantos of Childe Harold cohere into a unified artistic whole. Certainly they are best seen in relation to very different periods of Byron's life, different environments and difference preoccupations. Taken together, however, they represent a major artistic achievement and a response both to Byron's personal concerns about his public existence and to the public concerns of his age