Lord Byron's Poems Summary and Analysis
by Lord Byron
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto I
The Preface to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, published along with the poem, explains Byron’s intent in writing the poem and offers a defense of Childe Harold’s seemingly un-chivalrous character despite his being a candidate for knighthood. Byron also insists that, while based on real events, the poem is in no way to be taken as autobiographical.
Before undertaking the poem proper, Byron begins with the poem “To Ianthe,” an ode invoking his personal muse, whose beauty will inspire him to put pen to paper and recount the beauties of the lands in which Childe Harold travels.
Canto I begins with a more formal invocation of the Muse to inspire the poet to heights of poetic creativity. Stanzas 2-3 describe Childe Harold’s character, finding him wanting in the better qualities of manhood. Harold is “shameless” and “given to revel and ungodly glee”; additionally, he has undertaken “evil deeds” that haunt him with the threat of justice. In stanzas 4-6, Byron presents a discontented Harold, bored of his debauchery and ready for change. The poet notes that for one young lady in particular—the only woman whom Harold truly loved, yet whom he could never have—Harold’s desire to leave England in search of change is fortunate for her maiden heart.
Prior to Childe Harold’s departure, he visits his family home to gather his belongings. The place is described as a “vast and venerable pile,” old and decrepit like the former honor of his family line. As he wanders through his ancestral mansion, Harold feels brief pangs of remorse at the memories he leaves behind (stanza 8) but soon shuts them off in favor of his departure. Stanza 9 describes how unloved and alone Harold truly is: his only companions are “flatt’rers” and “parasites” who remain with him only so long as the money, food, alcohol, and women are available. Finally, Harold makes an abrupt farewell before his feelings for his mother and sister cause him to rethink his journey. Stanza 11 describes what Harold leaves behind, “His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,” and all the women and wine that had so delighted him in the past. But these pleasures have grown stale to him, and he must move on.
In stanza 12, we see how Harold responds to the rough seas he sets out upon. He nearly repents of his desire to flee England, but he nonetheless remains silent while others sit and weep at the storm-tossed ship’s chaos. Finally, the sea calms in stanza 13 and, when he thinks no one is listening, Childe Harold sings a song of “Farewell” to his native land. This song goes for ten stanzas, interrupting the poem proper but giving Harold his strongest voice in all of Canto I.
Having said his goodbyes, Harold passes the rest of the journey quickly and soon arrives in Portugal. Stanza 15 describes the beauty of Portugal as seen from a distance, as well as its dangerous situation in relation to hostile, Napoleon-controlled France. Stanza 16 describes the political situation, with England a lax ally of Portugal in her struggle against the French. Once Harold enters Lisbon, however, the distant beauty turns into scenes of filth. Stanzas 17-19 describe the architectural, social, and human decay even as Harold finds beauty in its exotic squalor. Stanza 20 focuses on one particular site, “our Lady’s house of woe,” a convent with a rich history of faithful monks and punished criminals. Nearby are several crosses, and the poet notes that the proximity of the convent may lead the viewer to think they are holy shrines, but they are actually the grave-markers of victims who have been killed in the area.
Stanzas 22-23 turn to the ruins of the landscape, conveying a tone of melancholy at the loss of glory throughout the land. Still, the speaker finds beauty in the desolation, if in no other sense than that they are monuments to former times.
In stanzas 24-26, the poet turns his eye to the much-reviled Convention of Cintra, wherein the British authorities allowed captured French soldiers to return to their homeland, their loot intact. The poem harshly criticizes the “allies” who would do this favor to enemies of Portugal (and other European countries) in politically charged times. In stanza 27, Byron reminds the reader that these views belong to Childe Harold, and so must be charged to his mind and not the poet’s. Even so debauched a person as Harold is can see blatant injustice and feel anger at it.
Stanza 27 begins with a moment of introspection on Childe Harold’s part, but this moment of self-evaluation is brought to an abrupt stop as the young knight-errant spurs his horse onward across the countryside in stanza 28. He comes to Mafra and deigns to slacken his pace long enough to think of the sorry state of “Lusiana’s luckless queen” (stanza 29). His journey continues, and at his freedom Harold feels joy in traveling through heretofore unknown lands.
In stanzas 31-44, Byron focuses on Childe Harold’s view of the situation in Spain, particularly on the battles recently fought on Spanish soil. He feels that, without aid, Spain is doomed to fall to France. However, he celebrates the bravery of the Spanish people and makes special note of the courage of Spanish women who, though not warriors by birth, are capable of great feats of combat when hard pressed (stanzas 45-59).
Childe Harold’s journey takes him from Spain to Greece, where the sights of Delphi and Parnassus temporarily distract him from Spain’s terrible fate. In stanzas 64 and 65 he compares the wonders of ancient Greece with the beauties of modern Spain, still unable to get the impact of the Spanish people off of his mind even amid the splendors of the classical world. This comparison apparently coincides with Childe Harold’s physical return to Spain, as he then dwells on the revels of Spain and the seeming indifference of her ally, England, to her plight. Childe Harold observes a Spanish tournament, complete with jousting (stanzas 71-73), then goes into great detail describing a bullfight in stanzas 74-79. From this bullfight, Harold draws the conclusion that Spanish men are raised amid bloodshed, thus explaining the Spanish temperament and hot desire for revenge (stanza 80). As the festival winds down and darkness falls, Childe Harold is tempted to join the Spanish youths in their merriment and passion, but refrains due to his own “life-abhorring gloom” (stanza 83) and remains a detached observer.
There is a brief interruption in the flow of Canto I with the introduction of the ode “To Inez.” Following stanza 84, in which Childe Harold maintains his aloofness to the charms of Spanish maidens and the fellowship of Spanish swains, the poem is a direct address from Childe Harold to Inez. He asks the beautiful maiden not to laugh at his dark countenance; when she asks what brings such gloom to his face, he replies that it is the deep sense of alienation he feels from the world around him. He cannot experience either beauty or joy, but must remain trapped with his own awareness of the senselessness and woe of the world. He concludes by praying that no others should “awaken” to this understanding of the world, but that they may instead carry on enjoying life as they see it (rather than as it really is).
In stanzas 85-90, Childe Harold bids farewell to Spain while summarizing her bravery and reminding the reader of the blood shed in defense of Spanish liberty. He pauses in stanza 91 to bid a more personal farewell to a fallen friend. Stanza 92 reiterates the whole point of this narrative—to draw attention to the strife of Western Europe. He ends with stanza 93, foreshadowing for the reader the next stage of Childe Harold’s journey, wherein he spends more time in the classical world of Greece.
Byron wrote the first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage during his travels to Europe in 1809-1811. He revised and published them in March 1812, and the third and fourth cantos were added later and published in 1816 and 1818 respectively. Byron envisioned Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage as a poetic travelogue of his experiences in Portugal, Spain, Greece, and Albania, areas of Europe not under Napoleon Bonaparte’s direct control. As a record of his journey through lands in which war was an ever-present specter, it is not surprising that much of the work meditates upon war, conquest, and violence in the name of one cause or another. The poem also reflects Byron’s political views, particularly his support for Greek independence from Turkey (a cause for which he would eventually fight and die) and the very close-to-home incident of the Convention of Cintra (stanzas 24-26), in which the English politicians allowed enemy French soldiers captured in battle to return to France with their loot intact. Besides his politics, Byron also includes his love for the East in his celebration of the peoples and places he encounters.
The ode “To Ianthe” refers to Lady Charlotte Harley, daughter of Lady Oxford; both women were of amorous interest to Byron. Byron added the ode in the 7th edition of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in 1814. In Byron: A Biography, Leslie Marchand writes: "For Byron it was a delightful situation indeed at the Oxfords': in addition to his charming mistress he had the companionship of her lovely daughters. They were just at the ages that excited his romantic sentiments most profoundly. Lady Charlotte Harley, then eleven, was his favourite. None could have more poignant sentiments of the beauty of youthful innocence than the disillusioned young lord who had known too early and too well the disappointments of love fading into satiety. His tribute to the child exceeded in warmth of idealization anything he ever wrote of her mother. Nothing could be more glowing than the five stanzas to this 'Young Peri of the West,' under the name of Ianthe, which he prefaced to the seventh edition of Childe Harold (1814)."
Byron intentionally chose to write Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in the form of Spenserian stanzas, a fact to which he draws attention in the poem’s preface. Each canto is made up of several nine-line stanzas, each focused on some aspect of the journey, but with several linked together by subject. These stanzas are made up of eight lines in iambic pentameter, followed by a final line of twelve syllables, also written in iambic meter (known as an alexandrine line). Each stanza follows the rhyme scheme ABABBCBCC.
Byron also was self-consciously responding to earlier Romantic verse, particularly Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.” Byron engaged in a kind of love-hate relationship with Wordsworth (or at least Wordsworth’s ideas) in his desire to simultaneously embrace the Romantic ideals set down by Wordsworth and Coleridge in their Lyrical Ballads, but at the same time to move beyond their views on nature as somehow superior to humanity and their apparent narcissism in placing themselves at the center of the universe. Byron also opposed their political views in many areas, particularly in their desire to criticize other nations without engaging them directly (as Byron did when he joined the battle for Greek independence).
There are three Classical references to Ianthe, but it is unclear which one (or more) Byron was alluding to when renaming Lady Charlotte. The first Ianthe was a Cretan maid betrothed to Iphis, herself a woman raised as a man. Because of their love for one another, the goddess Isis changed Iphis into a man so that the two could be married. The second Ianthe is one of the daughters of the titans Oceanus and Tethyis, making her a sea-nymph. The third Ianthe is a young woman whom the gods loved so dearly that they caused purple flowers to grow around her grave. The first reference is the most intriguing, as Byron spent much of his life until 1814 wrestling with his own sexual identity. However, the third Ianthe is simplest, since the real-life Lady Charlotte was only eleven years old when he met her and thus would invoke the purity of this maiden beloved of the gods. The second Ianthe is a nymph, which places her in the running as a divinity worthy of being Byron’s muse—and it is fact Ianthe he invokes as his muse, in true Homeric tradition, prior to beginning his long narrative of Childe Harold’s travels.
The protagonist is called Childe Harold, “childe” being the title given to a young man who is eligible for knighthood. Some critics criticized Byron for this title, noting how contrary to the ideals of chivalry Harold behaves. Byron responded in his second preface to Childe Harold that the past has been severely romanticized, and if his critics would review their medieval history they would see how ungodly the characters of these “noble” knights really were. Besides being historically accurate (in Byron’s view), the protagonist also offers to literature an early version of Byron’s great contribution to drama and poetry, the Byronic hero: “The observer of this landscape, Childe Harold, is the first and most striking representation of the Byronic hero” (Mellown). Childe Harold makes his journey to escape the pain (and possibly the consequences) of some unnamed sin committed in his homeland (England). He seeks respite and distraction in the exotic landscapes of Europe; thus, the first two cantos are primarily focused on poetic descriptions of the sights Childe Harold sees. Harold himself is almost invisible in much of the work, being a character through whom the reader gains his point of view, but who also does little to interact with the people or events described. This aloofness would later become a staple of Byron’s melancholy heroes in such works as Don Juan and Manfred.
One main theme of the cantos is Byron’s hatred of oppression. In Cantos I and II he describes the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s forces, clearly siding with the “noble” Spanish against these agents of tyranny. Later, he describes the Greeks as admirable people beaten into submission by their Turkish oppressors. In both cases, Byron takes the side of the “underdog”—a stance he would tend toward all his life. England was already allied with Spain against France, but even had she not been, Byron would likely have sided with the oppressed against the oppressor in any case.
Indeed, William Flesch notes that “the poem is about the meaning of freedom in all its forms—personal, political, poetic.” Byron himself felt social oppression and suffering at the hands of classmates during his school years; later in life he turned this into a general resistance to oppression. While not always consistent in his personal life, Byron would make this battle for independence and liberation central to his public persona through his poetry and political actions.
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