Saturday, November 19, 2016

George Gordon (Lord Byron), Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Introduction

Opening Passage:

Oh, thou, in Hellas deemed of heavenly birth,
Muse, formed or fabled at the minstrel's will!
Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth,
Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:
Yet there I've wandered by thy vaunted rill;
Yes! sighed o'er Delphi's long-deserted shrine
Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;
Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine
To grace so plain a tale--this lowly lay of mine.

Whilome in Albion's isle there dwelt a youth,
Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight;
but spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.

Summary: To sum up Harold in a phrase, we could say that he is bored and unrepentant. Thickly coated in a life of self-indulgent pleasures, he has become alienated from the world, all those pleasures adding up and, eventually, no longer differentiating themselves. Seen through the accumulated residue of self-indulgence, everything seems remote, detached. As a glutton experiences dyspepsia without nonetheless being penitent, so the pleasure-seeking eventually experience alienated boredom of satiety without any real desire to become something else. But it is worse for Harold, who is intelligent with no adequate task for his intelligence and in love with a woman who can never be his -- his is the life of one with the potential for greatness, for whom the actual greatness seems ever out of reach and, worse, ever out of reach because of his own voluntary choices. And so he wanders Europe, he who is not able to change within, in the hopes of finding a change without. And slowly he circles around to Rome, which, like himself, indicates greatness without being great, and is all ruin without redemption.

A childe is a candidate for knighthood -- a young lord who as yet has won no spurs. This plays a larger role in the poem than I think is generally recognized. The poem is written in Spenserian stanzas, and, like Spenser although not so extremely, filled with archaisms. Spenser's knights wander to fulfill themselves as nobles, achieving their proper glory by completing heroic tasks, and in so doing exemplify virtue. But Harold is not a knight but a childe, and although noble he exemplifies no virtues, but only better-bred vices; and his wandering is a journey of finding no heroic tasks. Harold is perpetual childe, and a never-knight.

When reading, I found the political descriptions, which are common, to be usually pompous (unlike the descriptions of art or nature, which are all usually excellent), but, looking over the entire work, they play an important role. Harold wanders Europe, and it's not that he finds no heroism. He finds the traces of heroic action everywhere. Reflecting on Napoleon, for instance, who, for all his failings and flaws, did extraordinary things, only puts into greater relief the life of Harold, so ordinary and turned in upon itself and insulated from the world. Much of the strength of the poem lies in Harold's own recognition of this. He is not a hero; he is not even really an antihero; he is just a nonhero, and must bear the cognizance of his nonheroism.

Favorite Passage: There are lots of excellent passages, but this one stuck out this reading, reflecting on Roman gladiators -- and all of us who are like them:

What from this barren being do we reap?
Our senses narrow, and our reason frail,
Life short, and truth a gem which loves the deep,
And all things weighed in custom's falsest scale;
Opinion an omnipotence, whose veil
Mantles the earth with darkness, until right
And wrong are accidents, and men grow pale
Lest their own judgments should become too bright,
And their free thoughts be crimes, and earth have too much light.

And thus they plod in sluggish misery,
Rotting from sire to son, and age to age,
Proud of their trampled nature, and so die,
Bequeathing their hereditary rage
To the new race of inborn slaves, who wage
War for their chains, and rather than be free,
Bleed gladiator-like, and still engage
Within the same arena where they see
Their fellows fall before, like leaves of the same tree.

Recommendation: Recommended, although it is very much a work for when you have a considerable amount of leisure.

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