Canto II presents Childe Harold’s travels to Greece and Albania. Again, Harold is the point-of-view character but seldom becomes involved in the actual events of the story except to reflect on them. Stanzas 1 and 2 invoke the Greek goddess Athena as a new Muse this time, which becomes more poignant when Byron reflects on the state of Athens and Greece’s physical past. He remembers when various religions were a part of Athenian culture, then mourns the dilapidation of the various Athenian structures (such as the Parthenon) to time and vandals. From the buildings, Byron turns to the ancient people of Athens in stanzas 7 and 8. He notes Socrates as Athens’ “wisest son” and conveys the loss of ancient wisdom from everyday life. From mourning the ancients, the poet turns to mourning his own contemporary and friend, John Edleston, in stanza 9.
In stanzas 10-15 Byron describes and decries the “plunder” of Grecian artifacts by outsiders, particularly Lord Elgin of England. He asks in stanza 14 when some new Greek hero will arise to defend Greece’s borders from invaders and vandals, but he sees no hope of such rescue in the near future and thus curses those who steal the ancient treasures from Greece.
Stanza 16 returns to Childe Harold. Stanzas 17-28 describe in detail the ship upon which Harold sails, as well as tracing his progress through the Mediterranean. In stanza 29 he comes to “Calypso’s Islands” and reunites with his own Calypso in the form of “Florence,” someone whom he loved once but whose charms he has now found to be deceptive. He holds himself stoically aloof from her proffered love (stanzas 30-35).
Stanza 36 returns to Harold’s journey, now entering Albania (stanzas 37 ff.). He sees the beauty of Albania’s landscape and, while unmoved by bloody battle (stanza 40), he finds himself strangely touched by the sight of the peak where legend holds the poet Sappho to have cast herself to her death for want of an unrequited love (stanza 41). The poet then describes the manmade beauties and history of Albania, and stanzas 50-52 turn to the greater grandeur of Nature itself.
However, stanza 53 is a meditation on the temporary nature of everything, complete with a warning to readers not to think themselves somehow more durable than the eroded and broken ruins of grand architecture from the classical world. In stanzas 54-66, Childe Harold disembarks and spends time among the Albanians, particularly enjoying the camaraderie and revels of the fighting men gathered around the bandit warlord Ali Pacha.
Harold returns to his ship in stanza 55 to be storm-tossed onto the shores of Suli, whose reputation bodes an ill reception for Harold. He discovers, however, that the people of Suli are generous in their hospitality to foreigners (stanza 68). Bandits prevent him from departing the way he had come, so Childe Harold and a band of men from Suli travel through the forest. When they make camp, Harold is treated to more Albanian revelry (stanza 72). Here Byron includes a translation and paraphrase of an actual warrior song.
The narrative resumes in stanza 73 with Childe Harold again in Greece, focusing on Greek independence from Turkey (and from other European marauders). He recalls past men of renown who have fought for Greek freedom from tyranny and concludes that their freedom will not come of itself, but must be won (stanzas 74-76). Stanzas 77-83 reflect on the state of Greece as an occupied land full of ancient legacies which are being exploited or destroyed by outsiders. Even as he is angered by the invaders, he acknowledges that generations of oppression have made the noble Greeks too prone to subservience to rise up of their own accord at present.
Nonetheless, in stanza 84 the poet calls for a revival of Greece’s former glories and bemoans the ruins of what was once so grand about the country (stanzas 85-86). In stanzas 87-92, he turns to nature as the more enduring beauty of Greece and suggests that this still-present splendor stands as a reminder of what is at stake. Stanzas 88-89 describe ancient Greek battlefields, again returning to the theme of grief over the loss of past grandeur and over the present blight. Stanzas 93-94 again decry those who despoil Greece’s treasures, claiming that the men who do so ruin the good name of England and will be cursed with the emptiness they leave behind in the Grecian landscape.
Stanzas 95-96 turn to more specific mourning of the loss of Byron’s good friend John Edleston. In stanza 97 he claims to turn to revelry in order to forget his sorrows, but in stanza 98 he reflects that getting older has its own curse: the longer he lives, the more people he loses.
One theme of Canto II is Byron’s frustration at the despoiling of ancient Greek treasures. An admirer of the Classical world, Byron was saddened by the dilapidated condition of the Greek ruins he visited and enraged at the vandalism he perceived that outsiders—particularly the British Lord Elgin—were committing in taking the architecture and statuary out of Greece for display in their home countries. To Byron, this looting of the ancient world was another form of oppression, as the forces of the present ravaged the civilizations of the past.
Byron seems to forget and then recall his protagonist, Harold, and bring him back into the narrative as point-of-view character. In the first several stanzas, Byron bewails the state of Athens as he saw it on his travels. The ideal city of his classical education was strewn with the damaged and worn out shells of formerly glorious buildings. For example, the Parthenon had been damaged in 1687 during the Venetian siege and was used as an ammunition storage area by the Turks. He wants to know where are the “men of might” (line 11) who might restore Athens and Greece to their former glory, but they are “sought in vain” (line 17) amid the ruins of this once great civilization.
Byron turns briefly from mourning the loss of the classical world to mourning a more personal loss, that of his recently deceased friend John Eldeston (stanza 9). He ties this personal tragedy to the more universal tragedy of Greece’s lost glory in order to add poignancy to the desecration of Greek history, even as he elevates the loss of his former schoolmate to the level of grand tragedy by coupling it with the ruins of Greek temples.
Stanzas 11-15 accuse Elgin of cultural robbery in no uncertain terms. To Byron, caught up in the cause of Greek political independence and seeking some foundation in the classical world he loved so dearly, Elgin became the face of despoliation and a regular target of Byron’s poetic, prose, and verbal attacks. Elgin represented British indifference or apathy to the plight of the Greeks, as well as a form of cultural parasitism Byron despised. He had made his journey to experience cultures other than England’s, not to see them stolen from their birthplace by British pirates. Harold’s visit to Greece again declares the wonders and majesty of Greece’s past while decrying her current desolation. Byron contrasts the present occupation of Greece by the Turks (and English treasure-hunters) with the past glories of Greek civilization in order to draw an even sharper contrast between the situation in his day and the situation as Byron thought it should be.
Byron also was frustrated with the modern Greeks, particularly in contrast to their classical forbears. In stanza 84 he seeks to rouse them, but later he is forced to mourn the loss of truly heroic men who would defend Greece against both political and cultural incursion. The Greeks Byron met on his journey were too docile, too used to being under the rule of outsiders, to ever truly revolt against Turkish authority or English vandalism.
The dozen stanzas describing Harold’s sailing through the Mediterranean vaguely parallel Odysseus’ journey sailing through the area in epic myth. Stanzas 29 and 30 specifically connect the Calypso of The Odyssey by Homer to the woman “Florence,” actually Constance Spencer Smith, wife of the British minister at Stuttgart and with whom Byron had a torrid affair in 1810. Byron was infatuated by Constance’s beauty and inflamed to passion by her status as seemingly unattainable (she was married, after all) and politically volatile (she had been arrested by Napoleon for unknown reasons and escaped with the help of another would-be suitor). When Byron learned of her “unfaithfulness” with yet another man, he broke off the relationship, paradoxically injured by the infidelity of his married lover. In this stanza, Byron cites his own situation, “check’d by every tie” (line 7), as his reason for not succumbing to her charms and remaining, just as Odysseus left the enthralling Calypso to continue his journey back home to his waiting wife and son. Harold’s stand against Florence’s charms in stanza 33 point to a man learning the dangers of love and seeking not to be captured by another’s beauty. Stanzas 34 and 35 continue this theme by declaring that the sorrows of love are not worth the debasement a man must undergo to find it.
Again, much of the detail in the travelogue is autobiographical, such as when, in stanzas 36 through 72, Byron describes Harold’s travels through Albania, particularly Harold’s visit to the “court” of the warlord bandit Ali Pacha. In a series of stanzas he describes the festivities of Ali Pacha’s mixed band of warriors, creating a parallel scene to the Spanish revelries of canto I. These men, too, are bloody in their demeanor and celebrate their lives violently, yet with great enthusiasm. Byron even includes a parallel description of Turkish women, who—in contrast to the brave Spanish females—are docile and content in their roles as mothers and home makers (stanza 61).
Of particular biographical interest are Byron’s closing stanzas to this canto. Prior to adding these stanzas to Childe Harold, Byron had learned of the deaths of his mother, his dog, and three of his friends all in the space of two months. The most mourned of these losses is John Edleston, with whom Byron had shared an intimate relationship at school and for whom his affections had continued into manhood. Stanza 95 eulogizes Edleston in ambiguous terms (Byron had after college distanced himself from his beloved choirboy); he describes Edleston as “gone” (line 1) and yet “bound” to him (line 2), and the “youth” and “affection which do the binding are not clearly defined as either Byron’s or Edleston’s characteristics. The grief and pain are unambiguous, however, as Byron says, “What is my being? thou hast ceased to be!” (line 5).