The fourth canto of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues the poet’s journey into Italy: Venice, Arqua, Ferrara, Florence, and finally Rome. Again the narrator laments the fall of older civilizations—this time the subject is Venice. The city is depicted as a cultural ghost town, peopled by the “mighty shadows” of literary giants such as William Shakespeare (who placed scenes in Venice). Literature is noted as being more enduring than even the cultures which produce it; similarly, sculpture endures after civilizations fall.
The poet visits Arqua, home of the famous poet Petrarch. Here, at least, the people of the city maintain Petrarch’s tomb and even his home (stanza 31). In Ferrara, beloved town of the poet Tasso, Byron pays homage to the mind of his fellow poet. After considering Italy’s own checkered history of carnage, Byron turns to Florence, where he pays homage to the great men buried in the Basilica of Santa Croce. The poet expresses outrage that Dante, who was exiled, was therefore not buried in “ungrateful Florence” (stanza 57). Nor is the great poet Boccaccio to be found there.
The poet pauses to decry his education, whose Latin drills gave him a distaste for certain poets, not because of their inherent failings but because of the way he had to learn them.
Finally, the poet’s visit to Rome makes up about half the canto. Once the narrator reaches Rome, he spends time listing and describing the various dictators from ancient times until the recent past. In this context he compares Napoleon to “a kind / Of bastard Caesar,” once again returning to his theme of liberty’s struggle against tyrants. He also considers the long march of men and suffering and time, of heroes, pain, ruin, redemption, and how this march has shaped his own wandering spirit.
The canto ends at the ocean, harking once again to Nature as an image of freedom and sublimity in its “eloquent proportions.” Yet, Byron encourages us not to surrender to the overwhelming power of the great and sublime but instead to visit great places and try to understand them. The ocean also serves as a contrast to the lost civilizations Byron has visited: “Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee— / Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?”
Childe Harold is long gone, transcended, and in this sense the pilgrimage is complete. Byron bids us farewell, encouraging us to leave Harold’s pain behind and move forward with the lessons gleaned from his travels.
Canto IV continues Byron’s autobiographical journey, this time throughout Italy. By now, Byron has completely given up the conceit that Childe Harold is anyone but the author himself; in his introductory notes (dedicated to this longtime friend John Hobhouse), Byron states that he “had become weary of drawing a line which every one seemed determined not to perceive.” While he once vociferously defended Childe Harold as a creation of the imagination, Byron now concedes that his best work is truly autobiographical in nature and sees no reason to keep up the pretense of any narrator but himself.
Canto IV follows the earlier Cantos in its description of fallen civilizations, but here instead of merely bemoaning the loss of the past, Byron seeks to draw a lesson from their destruction. Even the mightiest of empires eventually falls—a fact brought home to Byron particularly during his time spent in Rome—so military and political greatness are not necessarily the measure of permanence or virtue. The work of human hands and that of human political institutions are ephemeral, and therefore even the suffering one might undergo at the hands of a tyrant is impermanent as well.
Byron finds permanence and stability elsewhere, particularly in Nature and in Art. Stanzas 47 through 61 of this canto extol the virtues and lasting qualities of art, be it sculpture, painting, or literature. By way of contrast, Byron mentions the fates of those who have added so much to human art and knowledge—Dante, Boccaccio, Galileo, and others—whose reputations or remains have been sullied by jealous men even as their contributions carry on long beyond their mortal lives. Great architectural achievements, such as the Colosseum, the Pantheon, and St. Peters’ Basilica, still hold wonder for the world-weary Byron.
Stanzas 61 and 62 redirect the reader away from Art, which imitates, to its subject, Nature, with which the poem concludes. Manmade beauty is a great and everlasting thing, but it is Nature which holds the highest place in Byron’s admiring heart. His visits to Nature on his travels have been interrupted by visits to pay homage to the long roll of heroes, poets, and dictators’ energetic passions who represent the strong minds and personalities of mankind.
The litany of tyrants in the section on Rome points to the persistence of tyranny even as it accentuates the brevity of any single tyrant’s reign. Byron concludes his study of despotism with a comparison: Napoleon was “a fool / of false dominion,” and the French Revolution failed through “vile Ambition,” whereas the contemporary American Revolution sprang from “undefiled” beginnings and thus will continue to thrive. This is just one of many lessons that Byron seems to hope his readers absorb by contemplating the pilgrimage. Childe Harold has been transcended and subsumed into Byron, and his travels have brought him into contact with the sublime in things both human and natural, but when faced with overwhelming concepts or just the overwhelming power of life itself, Byron’s answer has been to keep his mind active in appreciation of all that is great.