A great discussion about Lord Byron’s Life

Here is an informative podcast about Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: BBC In Our Time, January 6, 2011 Though I found the host’s frequent interruptions annoying, I’m sure I’ll revisit this program.

Here is a summary of nearly all the topics discussed with his guests:

  • Byron’s aristocratic background and his grandfather, an admiral named “Foul Weather Jack.”
    Engraving of Byron's father, Captain John

    Engraving of Byron’s father, Captain John “Mad Jack” Byron, date unknown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • His father, “Mad Jack,” an army captain and drunken profligate. Jack seduced and married an aristocratic heiress named Amelia. After she died, he was in debt and on the run from creditors. He remarried “a rather plain plump Scottish girl named Catherine” for her money. Three years later, Mad Jack died (at 35) and she was bankrupt. (Catherine was Byron’s mother; Amelia was the mother of Byron’s half-sister Augusta, with whom he would have a scandalously incestuous relationship.)
  • Byron’s club foot.
  • Sexual abuse by his Calvinist nurse.
  • The rejection of one of his early works, Hours of Idleness
  • His retaliatory assault on poets and critics in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers. “It was English Bards that brought him to real public prominence…” a guest said, and not Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, of which Byron famously said “I awoke to find myself famous.”
  • His capacity for hate / holding grudges
  • 1809 – Byron’s grand tour – speculation on why he left to England: “This remains a mystery to some degree… it may have been because of his homosexual tendencies, which he felt he could only indulge in the East…” along with a love of Greek culture, etc.
  • The meaning of “childe” and why he started writing the poem.
  • The influence of Edmund Spenser (the poem is written in Spenserian stanzas).
  • The innovative style of the poem: “There were lots and lots of travel poems in the period… but what’s unique about CHP is that it’s simultaneously a travelogue, a political poem… and a very personal poem with all sorts of veiled references to personal scandal, and that’s what’s new”
  • The similarities between — and the merging of — the fictional Harold and the real Byron.
  • The break up of his marriage
  • How Byron was the first to write about “The shame of war, the disgrace of war — this is something entirely new in English poetry.”
  • Byron’s descriptions of bull-fighting.
  • On Greece becoming a “sad relic of departed worth”
  • 1812 – Childe Harold first published by Murray
  • Byron was one the first celebrities, before “being famous” was commonplace
  • 1816 – Byron left Britain for good following the exposure of his affair with his half-sister, along with rumors of attempted sodomy with his wife, etc.
  • His dangerously liberal politics.
    Frontispiece to a c. 1825 edition of Childe Ha...

    Frontispiece to a c. 1825 edition of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • His description of the Battle of Waterloo (Canto III) and his feelings about Napoleon.
  • What exactly is a “Byronic hero”?
  • What Byron doesn’t like about Wordsworth: his isolation from humanity
  • His continued status as a political hero in Greece and elsewhere. “There was a cult of Byron in every European country, except for Portugal.” (They never forgave him for insulting their country.)
  • Byron’s influence on other artists, including Bram Stoker: “Every vampire you encounter is based on Lord Byron”

Lord Byron in Portugal

The Story so far… Childe Harold has fled his native land and the empty pleasures of his hall, because there’s nothing and no one to keep him at home. He is about to arrive in Portugal. (For earlier portions, see the Childe Harold Project)

XIV.

On, on the vessel flies, the land is gone,
And winds are rude in Biscay’s sleepless bay.
Four days are sped, but with the fifth, anon,
New shores descried make every bosom gay;
And Cintra’s mountain greets them on their way,
And Tagus dashing onward to the deep,
His fabled golden tribute bent to pay;
And soon on board the Lusian pilots leap,
And steer ‘twixt fertile shores where yet few rustics reap.

Bay of Biscay = see image

English: This is a map showing the location of...

Cintra = city northwest of Lisbon. Sintra seems to be the modern spelling.

Tagus = longest river on the Iberian Peninsula. (Tajo in Spanish, Tejo in Portuguese; Tagus is Latin.)

Lusian = Portuguese

XV.

Oh, Christ! it is a goodly sight to see
What Heaven hath done for this delicious land!
What fruits of fragrance blush on every tree!
What goodly prospects o’er the hills expand!
But man would mar them with an impious hand:
And when the Almighty lifts his fiercest scourge
‘Gainst those who most transgress his high command,
With treble vengeance will his hot shafts urge
Gaul’s locust host, and earth from fellest foemen purge.

“Gaul’s locust host” refers to the French. Apparently, Byron sees war with the French as a form of divine punishment on the Portuguese for their destruction of the landscape. Lacking specifics, I’ll just read on.

Fellest = According to Merriam-Webster, fell can mean: a : fierce, cruel, terrible; b : sinister, malevolent <a fell purpose>; c : very destructive : deadly <a fell disease>

XVI.

What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold!
Her image floating on that noble tide,
Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold,
But now whereon a thousand keels did ride
Of mighty strength, since Albion was allied,
And to the Lusians did her aid afford
A nation swoll’n with ignorance and pride,
Who lick, yet loathe, the hand that waves the sword.
To save them from the wrath of Gaul’s unsparing lord.

Lisboa or Lisbon, is the capital of Portugal

“Which poets vainly pave with sands of gold” – this line, combined with those from Stanza XIV:  “And Tagus dashing onward to the deep, His fabled golden tribute bent to pay” seem to have a story behind them; I’m guessing false or exaggerated tales of gold.

England (Albion) came to aid the Portuguese (Lusians), with “a thousand” ships (is he being literal here? – that’s quite a fleet). Byron paints quite an unflattering image of the nation of Portugal.

Gaul’s unsparing lord = Napoleon.

XVII.

But whoso entereth within this town,
That, sheening far, celestial seems to be,
Disconsolate will wander up and down,
Mid many things unsightly to strange e’e;
For hut and palace show like filthily;
The dingy denizens are reared in dirt;
No personage of high or mean degree
Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt,
Though shent with Egypt’s plague, unkempt, unwashed, unhurt.

sheen = to be bright, show a sheen (to be bright or shining)

surtout =a man’s long, close-fitting overcoat. pronunciation

shent = destroyed / also “to put shame to” or reprove

XVIII.

Poor, paltry slaves! yet born midst noblest scenes—
Why, Nature, waste thy wonders on such men?
Lo! Cintra’s glorious Eden intervenes
In variegated maze of mount and glen.
Ah me! what hand can pencil guide, or pen,
To follow half on which the eye dilates
Through views more dazzling unto mortal ken
Than those whereof such things the bard relates,
Who to the awe-struck world unlocked Elysium’s gates?

The scene is more dazzling than anything described by … earlier I thought Shakespeare, but W. Hiley, editor of an 1877 edition I found on Google Books, says Dante.

ken = another one of those nice old words, meaning the range of vision; sight or view; the range of perception, knowledge or understanding.

Elysium = the Greek version of paradise, a place often mentioned in old poetry.

XIX.

The horrid crags, by toppling convent crowned,
The cork-trees hoar that clothe the shaggy steep,
The mountain moss by scorching skies imbrowned,
The sunken glen, whose sunless shrubs must weep,
The tender azure of the unruffled deep,
The orange tints that gild the greenest bough,
The torrents that from cliff to valley leap,
The vine on high, the willow branch below,
Mixed in one mighty scene, with varied beauty glow.

The word “toppling” caught my e’e – it’s an interesting word choice. Perhaps the crags seem toppled or overthrown by the convent; it also conveys the feeling of resting “atop” the crags. Also, you get a nice assonance with “toppling” and “convent.” That’s my thought, anyway.

hoar = a word you see oft in Romantic poetry. Hoar, hoary  – anything that’s white or gray, or ancient can be described with this word. It’s also a synonym for frost / sometimes I’ve seen “hoar-frost.” It’s unfortunate that this fine old-fashioned word and “whore” are homophones.

Reading poetry aloud is essential for appreciating the repetition of certain sounds: “horrid”, “hoar,”   “scorching,” “torrents”; “sunken”  and “sunless” and “unruffled”; “glen” and “tender.”

azure = blue

XX.

Then slowly climb the many-winding way,
And frequent turn to linger as you go,
From loftier rocks new loveliness survey,
And rest ye at ‘Our Lady’s House of Woe;’
Where frugal monks their little relics show,
And sundry legends to the stranger tell:
Here impious men have punished been; and lo,
Deep in yon cave Honorius long did dwell,
In hope to merit Heaven by making earth a Hell.

Two things worth mentioning here – Byron’s translation error and Honorius.

Nossa Senora de Peña or “our Lady’s house of woe” should be translated as “our lady of the rock”  (rock is peña; pena is Portuguese for punishment). Byron addresses the error in his notes to Cantos I-II.

Our Lady of the Rock

Our Lady of the Rock

I looked up Honorius in Wikipedia; he lived in the Convento de Santa Cruz da Serra da Sintra (Convent of the Holy Cross of the Sintra Mountains), lived to be 100, and spent the last thirty years of his life living in a small hole, which still exists today. Wish I had an image of it! Robert Southey, a poet and contemporary of Byron’s wrote this:

Inscription for the Cell of Honorius, at the Cork Convent, near Cintra
Robert Southey (1774–1843)
HERE, caverned like a beast, Honorius passed,
In self-affliction, solitude, and prayer,
Long years of penance. He had rooted out
All human feelings from his heart, and fled
With fear and loathing from all human joys.
Not thus in making known his will divine
Hath Christ enjoined. To aid the fatherless,
Comfort the sick, and be the poor man’s friend,
And in the wounded heart pour gospel-balm,—
These are the injunctions of his holy law,
Which whoso keeps shall have a joy on earth,
Calm, constant, still increasing, preluding
The eternal bliss of heaven. Yet mock not thou,
Stranger, the anchorite’s mistaken zeal!
He painfully his painful duties kept,
Sincere, though erring. Stranger! do thou keep
Thy better and thine easier rule as well.

XXI.

And here and there, as up the crags you spring,
Mark many rude-carved crosses near the path;
Yet deem not these devotion’s offering—
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath;
For wheresoe’er the shrieking victim hath
Poured forth his blood beneath the assassin’s knife,
Some hand erects a cross of mouldering lath;
And grove and glen with thousand such are rife
Throughout this purple land, where law secures not life!

So – not only are the Portuguese (of all social classes) dirty and dingy in appearance, but apparently the murder rate is out of control. Byron is a young tourist, already guilty of a translation error – perhaps not every cross denotes a murder.

Here is what he says in his notes to Cantos I-II:

“It is a well-known fact, that in the year 1809 the assassinations in the streets of Lisbon and its vicinity were not confined by the Portuguese to their countrymen; but that Englishmen were daily butchered: and so far from redress being obtained, we were requested not to interfere if we perceived any compatriot defending himself against his allies. I was once stopped in the way to the theatre at eight o’clock in the evening, when the streets were not more empty than they generally are at that hour, opposite to an open shop, and in a carriage with a friend; had we not fortunately been armed, I have not the least doubt that we should have adorned a tale instead of telling one.”

Lord Byron – Stanza by Stanza – Childe Harold, Canto 1

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.

CANTO 1

I.

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)

II.

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

ne=never

in sooth = in truth

wight = a living being, creature

wassailer = one that carouses: reveler

III.

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”)

IV.

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.

V.

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”

VI.

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.