The third canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues the travelogue framework of the first two cantos, self-aware that Byron is beginning something of a sequel to the original publication of just the first two cantos. This time, the muse is Ada, Childe Harold is older, and his journey is from Dover to Waterloo, then following the Rhine River into Switzerland. Harold is still independent, “proud though in desolation,” nature being his favored companion on his travels, the world of men and war being relatively distasteful.
Waterloo inspires Byron’s consideration of battlefields and the blood shed and wasted upon them; he contrasts violence in the name of aggression with the struggles of oppressed people for liberty. He particularly cites the heroism of the Hon. Major Frederick Howard (who died in battle and was disinterred and repatriated to England in 1816), and turns to consider the thousands of others who died. The poet dwells on sorrow and remembrance for many stanzas, then meditates upon the nature of human genius and the desire for greatness—and on Napoleon, who drew so many others into his battles. The death of a man in battle ought to “unteach mankind the lust to shine or rule” (stanza 43). And what does fame bring one in future ages except an extra page in the history books, and “an ornamented grave” (stanza 48)?
Harold spends time considering that there is still someone he loves, despite his general distaste for others. Then, back to his travels, Harold is in Switzerland, where he extols the bravery of General François-Séverin Marceau-Desgraviers, who died in battle at age 27 fighting for France’s “rights” (stanza 56), and then visits the majestic Alps in all their “cold sublimity,” far above mankind (stanza 62). And in contrast to Waterloo, which was about power, “true Glory’s stainless victories” were accomplished in the name of liberty in the 15th-century battle of Morat and the ancient battle of Marathon (stanza 64). The names of the brave “must not wither” (stanza 67).
In stanzas 69-75, the poet digresses to defend the spirit of individualism, arguing that “to fly from, need not be to hate, mankind,” and that the deep thinker is merely avoiding the unproductive situations where people entangle themselves in battles of “wretched interchange of wrong for wrong / Midst a contentious world.” The poet would choose nature over the problems of “the rushing crowd.” Contemplating his own death, he chooses to live seeking “the Spirit of each spot” (stanza 74).
The poet returns to his main subject, contemplating Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the political philosopher from Geneva, while he is at Lake Leman (Lake Geneva). Rousseau is another man misunderstood by the “vulgar minds” of his contemporaries (stanza 79).
Overarching this scene, with Rousseau in the background, is Nature, an amoral force for both beauty and danger. The natural world and its laws become the “great equalizer” among men, as nature demonstrates her power in the storm and earthquake while men hide in fear. However, Nature also can be seen as the works and struggles of men writ large, and so is connected to, if separate from, human life.
The canto concludes with the poet invoking his muse, who regretfully is not physically present with him on his travels.
Byron opens and closes Canto III by addressing his absent daughter (she was taken by his wife when she left him). This apostrophe indicates Byron’s sense of loss and isolation in being bereft of his beloved daughter, and by extension the family of which she was a part and the union between himself and the former Lady Byron. Annabella Byron had already left her husband, taking their young daughter with them, and asked for a separation on the grounds that Byron was either insane or cruel. After much cajoling on the part of the poet, he finally agreed to it. By this time the English media was spreading rumors of infidelity, violence, and incest on Byron’s part, going so far as to call for his exile. In 1816 Byron left England, never to return. In so leaving, he also abandoned any reasonable hope of seeing his daughter again. One can see from this biography why this canto features a man traveling and turning his back on the conflicts in the world.
Besides crying out in self-pity, Byron also subtly calls upon his daughter Ada as his muse for Canto III. She will be his inspiration as he describes the battlefields and men of greatness who are the subject of this canto. At the same time, Byron does not hide Ada’s identity under a pseudonym as he did in the first two cantos; he is now ready to erase the line separating himself and the fictional “Childe Harold” completely by making this canto entirely autobiographical and expressive of his own political and philosophical beliefs in no uncertain terms. Harold is hardly mentioned.
Byron takes up several themes in Canto III. The first is the sense of isolation, brought to the fore by his apostrophe to his daughter Ada. Isolation pervades the poem by accentuating the other themes: the misunderstanding of genius, freedom from despotism, and the value of Nature.
Byron remarks on two great men of genius in Canto III, Napoleon and Rousseau. He suggests that both men continue to be misunderstood by their inferiors. Although Byron does not condone Napoleon’s attempt at tyranny, he nonetheless maintains an objective admiration for the man’s accomplishments and vision. France had “rights,” and Byron extols the bravery of one young man who fought for France’s rights against the coalition of nations that were trying to suppress France’s power in the late 18th century. As for Rousseau, while he expresses concern that some of Rousseau’s ideas were deluded, Byron acknowledges that the man was full of passion and drive beyond the scope of most men. Byron describes these giants in their different spheres as “madmen who have made men mad / By their contagion,” indicating the power of their presence and also their ability to influence others as a part of their greatness.
Byron supplements his admiration of Napoleon and Rousseau with his recurring theme of liberty. On visiting the battlefields of Waterloo and Morat, Byron sadly reflects that the defeat of a tyrant is not the same thing as a defeat of all tyranny. Byron contrasts Waterloo, a battle fought for aggression, with Morat, a battle fought by the Swiss to defend their liberty against the Burgundians in the 16th century. Waterloo will be remembered as merely bloody—to Byron, no war of aggression could be justified—whereas Morat was, to Byron, a justifiable battle in that it was undertaken in the defense of liberty. Byron couples Morat with the Greek battle of Marathon as “true Glory’s stainless victories.”
When Byron’s journey takes him to Lake Leman and the Alps, his poetry turns to the wonders of Nature and puts Rousseau in his natural Genevan context. Unlike Wordsworth, who saw Nature as something separate from and superior to man, wherein a person could experience purity and perfection and thus improve himself, Byron saw Nature as a magnification of man’s—particularly his own—greatness and follies. To Byron, Nature was not an escape from his problems, but a vast landscape of reminders. Vast glaciers, thundering avalanches, and wild storms only accentuated Byron’s own internal struggles and reminded him how dangerous and marvelous a piece of work is man. The Alps express the Romantic theme of the sublime, those things that awe man by being too large to fully comprehend, somewhat as a genius might seem to the vulgar.
Canto III, written several years after the first two cantos, is clearly the product of a more fully developed poetic sensibility, and the early stanzas make it clear that Byron knows he is writing something of a sequel. Byron has returned to his focus on realism after several forays into shorter, lighter verse, and has come back to it as a more seasoned architect of words. In many ways, Canto III is a different poem entirely from that of Cantos I and II; it is mainly the form of the poetic travelogue and the overarching themes of liberty, isolation, and individualism that connect these disparate works together.