The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XII. The Romantic Revival.

II. Byron

§ 9. Childe Harold

The surprising success of the first two cantos of Childe Harold on their first appearance in 1812 was in no small measure due to the originality of the design, and to Byron’s extension of the horizon of romance. Before this time, poets had made certain attempts to set forth in verse the experiences of their foreign travels. Thus, Goldsmith’s Traveller is the firstfruits of the tour which he had made, flute in hand, through Flanders, France and Italy, in 1756. But the eighteenth century spirit lay heavy on Goldsmith: broad generalisations take the place of the vivid, concrete pictures which, in a more propitious age, he might have introduced into his poem, and racy description is sacrificed to the Augustan love of moralising. Byron, for his part, is by no means averse to sententious rhetoric; but he has, also, the supreme gift of vivid portrayal, whether it be that of a Spanish bull-fight, the voice of a muezzin on the minaret of a Turkish mosque, or the sound of revelry on the night before Waterloo. The creation of an ideal pilgrim as the central figure before whom this kaleidoscopic survey should be displayed, though good in idea, proved but a partial success. There was much that appealed to the jaded tastes of English society under the regency in the conception of Childe Harold as “Pleasure’s palled victim,” seeking distraction from disappointed love and Comus revelry in travel abroad; but, placed amid scenes which quiver with an intensity of light and colour, Childe Harold remains from first to last an unreal, shadowy form. He is thrust into the picture as fitfully as the Spenserian archaisms are thrust into the text, and, when, in the last canto, he disappears altogether, we are scarcely conscious of his absence. In his prose, Byron denies again and again the identity of Childe Harold with himself; but, in his verse, he comes nearer to the truth by his confession that his hero is a projection of his own intenser self into human form:

  • ’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.
  • (Childe Harold, III, 6.)
  • When Childe Harold was begun at Janina in Albania, in 1809, the hero may well have seemed to his creator as an imaginary figure; but, between the composition of the first two cantos and the third, there intervened for Byron a course of experiences which converted what was ideal and imaginary into bitter reality. The satiety, the lonely heart-sickness and the loathing for his native land, with which the poet imbues his hero in the opening stanzas of the first canto, had won an entrance into Byron’s own heart when he bade farewell to England in 1816. It was, accordingly, no longer necessary for him to create an ideal being, for the creator and the creation had become one.

    The third and fourth cantos show, in comparison with the first two, a far greater intensity of feeling and a deeper reading of life. Something of the glitter of rhetoric remains; but it is no longer cold, for a lava-flood of passion has passed over it. The poet is still a master of vivid description; but the objects that he paints are now seen quivering in an atmosphere of personal emotion. The human interest of the poem has also deepened; in the second canto, while recalling the historic associations of Greece, he sketched no portrait of Athenian poet, sage, or statesman: but, in his description of Switzerland, he seems unable to escape from the personality of Rousseau, and, in northern Italy, his progress is from one poet’s shrine to another. Side by side with this deeper human interest, there is, also, a profounder insight into external nature. Not only does he describe with incisive power majestic scenes like that of the Alps towering above the lake of Geneva, or that of the foaming cataract of Terni: he also enters, though only as a sojourner, into that mystic communion with nature wherein mountains, sea and sky are felt to be a part of himself and he of them. Among the solitudes of the Alps, Byron becomes, for a while, and, perhaps through his daily intercourse with Shelley, a true disciple of the great high-priest of nature, Wordsworth, whom elsewhere he often treats with contemptuous ridicule. Yet, even when he approaches Wordsworth most nearly, we are conscious of the gulf which separates them from one another. Byron seeks communion with nature in order to escape from man; high mountains become “a feeling” to him when the hum of human cities is a torture; but Wordsworth hears in nature the music of humanity, and the high purpose of his life is to sing the spousal verse of the mystic marriage between the discerning intellect of man and the goodly universe.

    In his letter to Moore, prefixed to The Corsair, Byron confesses that the Spenserian stanza is the measure most after his own heart, though it is well to remember that when he wrote these words he had not essayed the ottava rima. Disfigured as the stanzas of Childe Harold often are by jarring discords, it must be confessed that this ambitious measure assumed, in Byron’s hands, remarkable vigour, while its elaborately knit structure saved him from the slipshod movement which is all too common in his blank verse. Yet, this vigour is purchased at a heavy price. Rarely in Byron do we meet with the stately, if slow-moving, magnificence with which Spenser has invested the verse of his own creation; the effect produced on our ears by the music of The Faerie Queene is that of a symphony of many strings, whereas, in Childe Harold, we listen to a trumpetcall, clear and resonant, but wanting the subtle cadence and rich vowel-harmonies of the Elizabethan master.