Hands up everyone who, like me, thought that Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was going to be about, oh, I don’t know, a young soon-to-be-knight tramping around Europe and going on grand adventures? I feel like there should be a big sign at the end of the book saying, ‘HA HA. Sucked in’.
Don’t get me wrong, Byron’s first major work is absolutely wonderful – just not in the way I was expecting. It’s been so long since I’ve read poetry that I had more or less forgotten the whole point of the Romantics was less about plot and more about Nature, the individual, the human mind with all its ingenious and imperceptible little nooks and crannies. So I went in expecting some sort of storyline, and found something completely different.
Byron begins the first canto by introducing the young Childe Harold, a man “sore sick at heart” (Canto I, l. 46), disgusted with his native land and his rather riotous way of living:
Apart he stalked in joyless reverie,
And from his native land resolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.
(Canto I, ll. 50-54)
Childe Harold is perhaps a prototype for what would later become known as the ‘Byronic hero’: moody, scornful, but also intelligent and passionate. And although he is supposedly separate from the persona of the poem, it is often difficult to distinguish between the thoughts and words of Harold and those of the poet. Indeed, Harold takes long tea-breaks throughout the poem, popping in here and there just to remind readers he still exists. It’s perhaps unsurprising, considering that Byron himself visited the places that he describes in the poem, including Portugal, Greece, and Albania. It’s probably quite right to speculate that the poem could be semi-autobiographical, especially considering the fact that he wrote the first canto while travelling.
The first canto takes us to Spain and Portugal, the second to Albania and Greece. Canto III deals with France, and the final one deals with Italy. Because it was written over a period of several years, it’s possible to see Byron refining his skill as a poet; some of the verses in the final canto were particularly good. And although the bulk of the poetry is rather like reading a nineteenth-century travel account (with mourning for the Old World aplenty), you can see some of Byron’s political views bleeding through; he spends a great deal of time on the topic of Tyrants, inspired by Napoleon and the Battle of Waterloo.
Childe Harold may not always be visible, but reading this poem reaffirmed my love of the Romantics. If this is Byron’s early work, I can’t wait to read his later, more ‘mature’ (although the extent to which this word can be applied to Byron is, of course, up for question) works.
Rating: 4 Stars