1st edition title page, published 1812
|Genre||Narrative poem, satire|
|Preceded by||Childe Harold's Pilgrimage|
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is a lengthy narrative poem in four parts written by Lord Byron. It was published between 1812 and 1818 and is dedicated to "Ianthe". The poem describes the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry, looks for distraction in foreign lands. In a wider sense, it is an expression of the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. The title comes from the term childe, a medieval title for a young man who was a candidate for knighthood.
The poem contains elements thought to be autobiographical, as Byron generated some of the storyline from experience gained during his travels through Portugal, the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea between 1809 and 1811. The "Ianthe" of the dedication was the term of endearment he used for Lady Charlotte Harley, about 11 years old when Childe Harold was first published. Charlotte Bacon, née Harley, was the second daughter of 5th Earl of Oxford and Lady Oxford, Jane Elizabeth Scott. Throughout the poem, Byron, in character of Childe Harold, regretted his wasted early youth, hence re-evaluating his life choices and re-designing himself through going on the pilgrimage, during which he lamented various historical events including the Iberian Peninsular War among others.
Despite Byron's initial hesitation at having the first two cantos of the poem published because he felt it revealed too much of himself, it was published, at the urging of friends, by John Murray in 1812, and brought both the poem and its author to immediate and unexpected public attention. Byron later wrote, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous". The first two cantos in John Murray's edition were illustrated by Richard Westall, well-known painter and illustrator who was then commissioned to paint portraits of Byron.
Published in March, 1812, the first run of 500 quarto copies sold out in three days. There were ten editions of the work within three years. Byron deemed the work "my best" in 1817.
Byron chose for the epigraph for the 1812 edition title page a passage from Le Cosmopolite, ou, le Citoyen du Monde (1753), by Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron, in the original French. Translated into English, the quote emphasizes how the travels have resulted in a greater appreciation of his own country:
The universe is a kind of book of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one's own country. I have leafed through a large enough number, which I have found equally bad. This examination was not at all fruitless for me. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the different peoples among whom I have lived have reconciled me to her. If I had not drawn any other benefit from my travels than that, I would regret neither the expense nor the fatigue.
The work provided the first example of the Byronic hero. According to Peter Thorslev, the Byronic hero consists of many different characteristics. The hero must have a rather high level of intelligence and perception as well as be able to easily adapt to new situations and use cunning to his own gain. It is clear from this description that this hero is well-educated and by extension is rather sophisticated in his style. Aside from the obvious charm and attractiveness that this automatically creates, he struggles with his integrity, being prone to mood swings. Generally, the hero has a disrespect for certain figures of authority, thus creating the image of the Byronic hero as an exile or an outcast. The hero also has a tendency to be arrogant and cynical, indulging in self-destructive behaviour which leads to the need to seduce men or women. Although his sexual attraction through being mysterious is rather helpful, it often gets the hero into trouble. Characters with the qualities of the Byronic hero have appeared in novels, films and plays ever since.
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Childe Harold became a vehicle for Byron's own beliefs and ideas, but in the preface to canto four Byron complains that his readers conflate him and Child Harold too much, so he will not speak of Harold as much in the final canto. According to Jerome McGann, by masking himself behind a literary artifice, Byron was able to express his view that "man's greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection which he cannot attain".
Herman Melville in Moby-Dick warns the ship-owners of Nantucket of enlisting "sunken-eyed Platonists" to man the mast-head lest these dreamy youth "tow you ten wakes around the world, and never make you one pint of sperm richer." And goes on to refer to Byron's poem, "Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:- 'Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.' "
Quotations related to Childe Harold's Pilgrimage at Wikiquote