Lord Byron’s Childe Harold is not a readily accessible work for the modern reader. For my own benefit, if not yours, I want to break it down canto by canto, stanza by stanza. I’m reading the big fat red Oxford edition.
For now, I will spare you the details of Byron’s fascinating life and dive right into this project. After each stanza, I’ll make some comments that I hope will be brief and relevant. Honestly, you may want to skip this advanced delving for now; I’ll have some more digestible posts about Byron in the near future if this is the first you’ve heard of him.
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.
Byron is too affectedly modest to directly appeal to the muses for help. He doesn’t want to be associated with embarrassingly bad, lyre-strumming poets. Instead he merely wanders by their “vaunted rill” and sighs “o’er” Dephi’s long-deserted shrine. (Delphi rhymes with sigh.)
Vaunted = widely praised or boasted about
Rill= a very small brook
“O’er” = over. (Poets do this a lot – a practice called elision)
Mount Helicon is located in Hellas (Greece) and is considered the home of the muses. Hesiod (early Greek poet) names nine of them, representing the various arts. On Helicon is a fountain named Hippocrene (Hip-po-cré-ne), reputedly created by a stamp from the hoof of Pegasus, the winged horse of Greek mythology.
What confuses me is Byron’s mention of Delphi, a different location. What “feeble fountain” and “sacred hill” is being referred to, if not Helicon? Byron’s notes for his readers make it clear that he went to Delphi, but the muses’ homebase is Helicon. What the Hellas?
Mote = an archaic word, meaning may or might.
Lay = 1. a simple narrative poem: ballad; 2. or melody, song (“Lay” is another oft-encountered word in poetry)
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.
Whilome = formerly (“Whil-” in Whilome rhymes with isle)
Albion’s isle = Great Britain
in sooth = in truth
wight = a living being, creature
wassailer = one that carouses: reveler
Childe Harold was he hight:—but whence his name
And lineage long, it suits me not to say;
Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame,
And had been glorious in another day:
But one sad losel soils a name for aye,
However mighty in the olden time;
Nor all that heralds rake from coffined clay,
Nor florid prose, nor honeyed lines of rhyme,
Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.
Hight = named.
losel = a worthless person (first syllable sounds like “prose”)
Childe Harold basked him in the noontide sun,
Disporting there like any other fly,
Nor deemed before his little day was done
One blast might chill him into misery.
But long ere scarce a third of his passed by,
Worse than adversity the Childe befell;
He felt the fulness of satiety:
Then loathed he in his native land to dwell,
Which seemed to him more lone than eremite’s sad cell.
Eremite = hermit.
From Encyclopedia Brittanica: hermit, also called Eremite, one who retires from society, primarily for religious reasons, and lives in solitude. In Christianity the word (from Greek erēmitēs, “living in the desert”) is used interchangeably with anchorite, although the two were originally distinguished on the basis of location: an anchorite selected a cell attached to a church or near a populous centre, while a hermit retired to the wilderness.
For he through Sin’s long labyrinth had run,
Nor made atonement when he did amiss,
Had sighed to many, though he loved but one,
And that loved one, alas, could ne’er be his.
Ah, happy she! to ‘scape from him whose kiss
Had been pollution unto aught so chaste;
Who soon had left her charms for vulgar bliss,
And spoiled her goodly lands to gild his waste,
Nor calm domestic peace had ever deigned to taste.
Anytime you see “aught” just think “anything”
And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart,
And from his fellow bacchanals would flee;
‘Tis said, at times the sullen tear would start,
But pride congealed the drop within his e’e:
Apart he stalked in joyless reverie,
And from his native land resolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugged, he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.
e’e = eye
e’en = even
And so, the story so far – Childe Harold, Byronic hero, is off to Portugal, his first stop in a bit of restless wandering.