The following stanzas are from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. As part of an ongoing project, I’m attempting to make the poem more accessible by adding definitions of archaic words, relevant background material taken from a number of sources, and some of my own commentary.
The story so far — Byron has entered Spain, and his verse urges the Spaniards to rise up and defend themselves. Like all men, he is not entirely immune from the siren call of war, but he clearly recognizes its obscene and pointless waste. These stanzas are savagely anti-war. According to a BBC discussion of Childe Harold, Byron was one of the first English poets to take such a stance. What I think is interesting is how he entices the reader to feel the rousing excitement of war, only to unmask its illusion. Men, duped by spurious notions of glory and honor, are reduced to food for crows and fertilizer for fields. They are the broken, cast off tools of tyrants.
This is Byron at his best!
Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance
Lo! Chivalry, your ancient goddess, cries,
But wields not, as of old, her thirsty lance,
Nor shakes her crimson plumage in the skies:
Now on the smoke of blazing bolts she flies,
And speaks in thunder through yon engine’s roar!
In every peal she calls— ‘Awake! arise!’
Say, is her voice more feeble than of yore,
When her war-song was heard on Andalusia’s shore?
Chilvary, personified as a goddess, has traded in her lance, “thirsty” for the blood of men, for the cannon, the modern engine of war. Andalusia is the southernmost region of Spain, comprised of eight provinces.
Harold”s words echo those of Satan in Paradise Lost, Book 1. For nine days and nights, the rebel angels plummet from heaven, landing in a lake of fire. Defeated, and floating vanquished upon the waters, Satan rouses his troops from their slumber: “Awake, arise, or be for ever fall’n.”
Hark! heard you not those hoofs of dreadful note?
Sounds not the clang of conflict on the heath?
Saw ye not whom the reeking sabre smote;
Nor saved your brethren ere they sank beneath
Tyrants and tyrants’ slaves?—the fires of death,
The bale-fires flash on high:—from rock to rock
Each volley tells that thousands cease to breathe:
Death rides upon the sulphury Siroc,
Red Battle stamps his foot, and nations feel the shock.
heath = a : a tract of wasteland b : an extensive area of rather level open uncultivated land usually with poor coarse soil, inferior drainage, and a surface rich in peat or peaty humus
the reeking sabre smote = a sabre or saber is a curved sword, most likely of a type favored by the muslim invaders of Spain. “Reeking” is an odd word choice. Reeking originally meant to emit smoke; perhaps the swords are steaming with hot blood, which of course also has a distinct odor. Smote is the past tense of smite.
bale-fire = an outdoor fire often used as a signal fire
Siroc or sirocco = a hot dust-laden wind from the Libyan deserts that blows on the northern Mediterranean coast
Lo! where the Giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deepening in the sun,
With death-shot glowing in his fiery hands,
And eye that scorcheth all it glares upon;
Restless it rolls, now fixed, and now anon
Flashing afar,—and at his iron feet
Destruction cowers, to mark what deeds are done;
For on this morn three potent nations meet,
To shed before his shrine the blood he deems most sweet.
The “Giant” is Red Battle, War, the “eye that scorcheth all it glares upon.” The three nations are Spain, Britain and France. This stanza makes me think of the Lord of the Rings and restless eye of Sauron.
By Heaven! it is a splendid sight to see
(For one who hath no friend, no brother there)
Their rival scarfs of mixed embroidery,
Their various arms that glitter in the air!
What gallant war-hounds rouse them from their lair,
And gnash their fangs, loud yelling for the prey!
All join the chase, but few the triumph share:
The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away,
And Havoc scarce for joy can cumber their array.
As in all wars, Death / “The Grave” is the real winner.
havoc = wide and general destruction : devastation; great confusion and disorder
cumber = encumber; array has a number of meanings, but here it an imposing group or body of soldiers.
Havoc, (destruction personified) eager and joyful, hardly weighs down these troops with its presence. (That’s how I translate that last line.) I’ll have to do some research on war-hounds…
Three hosts combine to offer sacrifice;
Three tongues prefer strange orisons on high;
Three gaudy standards flout the pale blue skies.
The shouts are France, Spain, Albion, Victory!
The foe, the victim, and the fond ally
That fights for all, but ever fights in vain,
Are met—as if at home they could not die—
To feed the crow on Talavera’s plain,
And fertilise the field that each pretends to gain.
orisons = prayers
The battle of Talavera began July 27, 1809, and lasted two days. Byron was not there at the time. Writing to his mother, he said, “You have heard of the battle near Madrid, and in England they would call it a victory—a pretty victory! Two hundred officers and five thousand men killed, all English, and the French in as great force as ever. I should have joined the army, but we have no time to lose before we get up the Mediterranean.”
There shall they rot—Ambition’s honoured fools!
Yes, Honour decks the turf that wraps their clay!
Vain Sophistry! in these behold the tools,
The broken tools, that tyrants cast away
By myriads, when they dare to pave their way
With human hearts—to what?—a dream alone.
Can despots compass aught that hails their sway?
Or call with truth one span of earth their own,
Save that wherein at last they crumble bone by bone?
sophistry = subtly deceptive reasoning or argumentation
myriad = a great number; in Greek it originally meant 10,000
O Albuera, glorious field of grief!
As o’er thy plain the Pilgrim pricked his steed,
Who could foresee thee, in a space so brief,
A scene where mingling foes should boast and bleed.
Peace to the perished! may the warrior’s meed
And tears of triumph their reward prolong!
Till others fall where other chieftains lead,
Thy name shall circle round the gaping throng,
And shine in worthless lays, the theme of transient song.
meed = earned reward or wage
Albuera was another scene of battle in the Peninsular War. The English defeated the French there in 1811.
Enough of Battle’s minions! let them play
Their game of lives, and barter breath for fame:
Fame that will scarce reanimate their clay,
Though thousands fall to deck some single name.
In sooth, ’twere sad to thwart their noble aim
Who strike, blest hirelings! for their country’s good,
And die, that living might have proved her shame;
Perished, perchance, in some domestic feud,
Or in a narrower sphere wild Rapine’s path pursued.
Byron “supports the troops” as we say in America, but he savagely mocks them as well. In truth, he says, it would be sad to prevent them — these blessed temp workers — from dying for their country. At home, they might have suffered from an ignoble death, like dying in bar fight, or they might have become robbers or thieves (in other words, engaging in behavior that is considered criminal outside the context of war).
rapine = pillage, plunder