Lord Byron in Spain – Critic of War

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!

XXXVII

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.”

XXXVIII.

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

XXXIX.

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.

XL.

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…

XLI.

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.”

XLII.

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

XLIII.

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.

XLIV.

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

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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 – continued

The story so far: having escaped death at the hands of assassins, Lord Byron continues his sight-seeing tour of Portugal, describing the sights as seen by his fictional character Childe Harold.

XXII.

On sloping mounds, or in the vale beneath,
Are domes where whilom kings did make repair;
But now the wild flowers round them only breathe:
Yet ruined splendour still is lingering there.
And yonder towers the prince’s palace fair:
There thou, too, Vathek! England’s wealthiest son,
Once formed thy Paradise, as not aware
When wanton Wealth her mightiest deeds hath done,
Meek Peace voluptuous lures was ever wont to shun.

whilom = formerly. “England’s wealthiest son” is a reference to William Beckford, author of Vathek, considered a classic gothic novel. I have a nicely illustrated copy of it, and confess I have yet to read it, though it’s not lengthy.

English: The hall of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshi...

English: The hall of Fonthill Abbey in Wiltshire, England (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A wealthy eccentric, the life of Beckford is worth mentioning. At five he received piano lessons from Mozart, who was nine years old at the time. His father, twice Lord Mayor of London, bequeathed him, his only son, a vast fortune derived from Jamaican sugar plantations powered by slave labor. Beckford blew most of his fortune on collecting art and on building Fonthill Abbey, a gigantic gothic construction with a central tower that ended up collapsing twice.

When his sexual involvement with a young boy was exposed (Beckford was 18 and the boy 10 when they first met), he chose self-exile, fleeing to the Continent with his wife.

Fonthill Abbey. Built 1795 - 1807 by James Wya...

Fonthill Abbey. Built 1795 – 1807 by James Wyatt for William Beckford, the author of the gothic fantasy novel Vathek. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

XXIII.

Here didst thou dwell, here schemes of pleasure plan.
Beneath yon mountain’s ever beauteous brow;
But now, as if a thing unblest by man,
Thy fairy dwelling is as lone as thou!
Here giant weeds a passage scarce allow
To halls deserted, portals gaping wide;
Fresh lessons to the thinking bosom, how
Vain are the pleasaunces on earth supplied;
Swept into wrecks anon by Time’s ungentle tide.

Apparently, a pleasaunce, aside from meaning enjoyment, is also “the region of a garden with the sole purpose of giving pleasure to the senses, but not offering fruit or sustenance” (an obsolete definition from allwords.com). A pleasaunce, full of pretty but useless, fruitless plants, is a fine metaphor for empty pleasures. Take care, dear reader, lest you end up ruined with no more than a garden full of giant weeds!

Vain are the pleasaunces on earth supplied; Swept into wrecks anon by Time’s ungentle tide.

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.