update: after a long hiatus, the Childe Harold project will continue next week… thanks for your interest!
Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, Stanza by Stanza
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. You may want to skip this advanced delving for now if this is the first you’ve heard of him. This is an ongoing work-in-progress. I will add new material weekly and make additions and revisions to the existing notes.
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.
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.
The Childe departed from his father’s hall;
It was a vast and venerable pile;
So old, it seemed only not to fall,
Yet strength was pillared in each massy aisle.
Monastic dome! condemned to uses vile!
Where superstition once had made her den,
Now Paphian girls were known to sing and smile;
And monks might deem their time was come agen,
If ancient tales say true, nor wrong these holy men.
Pile = a large building or group of buildings.
The town of Paphos is on the island of Cyprus, known for its recent banking troubles. The ancient city, now referred to as Old Paphos, is where Aphrodite was reputedly born from the sea foam, and housed a famous temple in her honor. Phapian girls are either merely wanton, or are prostitutes. I’m not sure which meaning applies here.
Anyway, Harold has converted his Dad’s place, a former monastery, into a swinging bachelor pad. I’m not sure what ancient tales are referred to in the last two lines.
Yet ofttimes in his maddest mirthful mood,
Strange pangs would flash along Childe Harold’s brow,
As if the memory of some deadly feud
Or disappointed passion lurked below:
But this none knew, nor haply cared to know;
For his was not that open, artless soul
That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow;
Nor sought he friend to counsel or condole,
Whate’er this grief mote be, which he could not control.
haply = by chance, luck, or accident (think happenstance)
And none did love him: though to hall and bower
He gathered revellers from far and near,
He knew them flatterers of the festal hour;
The heartless parasites of present cheer.
Yea, none did love him—not his lemans dear—
But pomp and power alone are woman’s care,
And where these are light Eros finds a feere;
Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare,
And Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair.
Leman = sweetheart, lover; esp. mistress
feere = consort or mate
“Maidens, like moths, are ever caught by glare, and Mammon wins his way where seraphs might despair.” – Great quote!
(Seraphs are a type of angel.)
Childe Harold had a mother—not forgot,
Though parting from that mother he did shun;
A sister whom he loved, but saw her not
Before his weary pilgrimage begun:
If friends he had, he bade adieu to none.
Yet deem not thence his breast a breast of steel;
Ye, who have known what ’tis to dote upon
A few dear objects, will in sadness feel
Such partings break the heart they fondly hope to heal.
Harold is a thinly disguised fictional version of Byron. Him and his mother didn’t get along all that well, and he did have a half-sister whom he loved (a little too much).
His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,
The laughing dames in whom he did delight,
Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,
Might shake the saintship of an anchorite,
And long had fed his youthful appetite;
His goblets brimmed with every costly wine,
And all that mote to luxury invite,
Without a sigh he left to cross the brine,
And traverse Paynim shores, and pass earth’s central line.
Paynim = is an old word for “pagan”
The sails were filled, and fair the light winds blew
As glad to waft him from his native home;
And fast the white rocks faded from his view,
And soon were lost in circumambient foam;
And then, it may be, of his wish to roam
Repented he, but in his bosom slept
The silent thought, nor from his lips did come
One word of wail, whilst others sate and wept,
And to the reckless gales unmanly moaning kept.
circumambient = encompassing, being on all sides
This stanza seems a bit over the top. The crew is weeping and moaning in a most unmanly matter, with the exception of our hero…
But when the sun was sinking in the sea,
He seized his harp, which he at times could string,
And strike, albeit with untaught melody,
When deemed he no strange ear was listening:
And now his fingers o’er it he did fling,
And tuned his farewell in the dim twilight,
While flew the vessel on her snowy wing,
And fleeting shores receded from his sight,
Thus to the elements he poured his last ‘Good Night.’
Up next: Harold sings goodnight to his native land…
Farewell Song from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (Canto I, Between Stanzas 13 and 14):
Adieu, adieu! my native shore
Fades o’er the waters blue;
The night-winds sigh, the breakers roar,
And shrieks the wild sea-mew.
Yon sun that sets upon the sea
We follow in his flight;
Farewell awhile to him and thee,
My Native Land—Good Night!
A few short hours, and he will rise
To give the morrow birth;
And I shall hail the main and skies,
But not my mother earth.
Deserted is my own good hall,
Its hearth is desolate;
Wild weeds are gathering on the wall,
My dog howls at the gate.
‘Come hither, hither, my little page:
Why dost thou weep and wail?
Or dost thou dread the billow’s rage,
Or tremble at the gale?
But dash the tear-drop from thine eye,
Our ship is swift and strong;
Our fleetest falcon scarce can fly
More merrily along.’
‘Let winds be shrill, let waves roll high,
I fear not wave nor wind;
Yet marvel not, Sir Childe, that I
Am sorrowful in mind;
For I have from my father gone,
A mother whom I love,
And have no friend, save these alone,
But thee—and One above.
‘My father blessed me fervently,
Yet did not much complain;
But sorely will my mother sigh
Till I come back again.’—
‘Enough, enough, my little lad!
Such tears become thine eye;
If I thy guileless bosom had,
Mine own would not be dry.
‘Come hither, hither, my staunch yeoman,
Why dost thou look so pale?
Or dost thou dread a French foeman,
Or shiver at the gale?’—
‘Deem’st thou I tremble for my life?
Sir Childe, I’m not so weak;
But thinking on an absent wife
Will blanch a faithful cheek.
‘My spouse and boys dwell near thy hall,
Along the bordering lake;
And when they on their father call,
What answer shall she make?’—
‘Enough, enough, my yeoman good,
Thy grief let none gainsay;
But I, who am of lighter mood,
Will laugh to flee away.’
For who would trust the seeming sighs
Of wife or paramour?
Fresh feeres will dry the bright blue eyes
We late saw streaming o’er.
For pleasures past I do not grieve,
Nor perils gathering near;
My greatest grief is that I leave
No thing that claims a tear.
And now I’m in the world alone,
Upon the wide, wide sea;
But why should I for others groan,
When none will sigh for me?
Perchance my dog will whine in vain
Till fed by stranger hands;
But long ere I come back again
He’d tear me where he stands.
With thee, my bark, I’ll swiftly go
Athwart the foaming brine;
Nor care what land thou bear’st me to,
So not again to mine.
Welcome, welcome, ye dark blue waves!
And when you fail my sight,
Welcome, ye deserts, and ye caves!
My Native Land—Good Night!
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.
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
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
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>
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.
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
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 Shakespeare, Byron says.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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!
War and Politics in Portugal
My bizarre project to personally annotate Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage continues. For the first time, I feel I might be getting in over my head — Byron’s poem addresses a swirling turmoil of events with which I’m not familiar. I encourage you to add any insights, or offer corrections. My sources are the Encyclopedia Brittanica, Wikipedia, and quaint footnoted editions I come across in Google Books. If learning about the politics of early 19th century Portugal tests your patience, please hang in there, because Byron is about to enter Spain.
The next three stanzas (24-26) of Canto I deal with the Cintra Convention (1808).
When the French invaded Portugal, they were stopped by a British general who came to be known as the Duke of Wellington. The victors agreed to let the weakened French army return home as part of the Cintra Convention. This peace agreement angered Byron.
The Cintra Convention occurred within the context of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), that portion of the Napoleonic Wars taking place on the Iberian Peninsula. After Napoleon made a pact with Russia in 1807, only two countries remained allied or friendly to Britain: Sweden and Portugal. Russia would deal with Sweden.
Napoleon wanted Portugal to close their ports and declare war on Britain, but when the Portuguese hesitated, he invaded, and Spain, a former ally, switched sides when the French crossed into their territory and occupied part of the country (Spain refers to the Peninsular War as the War of Independence or Guerra de la Independencia.) Of course, that’s just the gist of it. Here is a great image of the Battle of Vimiero, the village near Lisbon where Wellington defeated the French.
Behold the hall where chiefs were late convened!
Oh! dome displeasing unto British eye!
With diadem hight foolscap, lo! a fiend,
A little fiend that scoffs incessantly,
There sits in parchment robe arrayed, and by
His side is hung a seal and sable scroll,
Where blazoned glare names known to chivalry,
And sundry signatures ador the roll,
Whereat the urchin points, and laughs with all his soul.
“diadem hight foolscap” — A diadem is a royal band or crown, and “hight” means “named.” Byron regards the king of Portugal as a “little fiend” whose crown might as well be the cap of a fool. The signatures probably refer to those who signed the treaty. Even poor street kids — urchins — recognize Portugal’s folly in this agreement, Byron says.
One theme of continuing interest and surprise to me is the political feistiness of poets, a trait perhaps not appreciated by modern readers, who probably think poets of the past just whiled away their time sniffing flowers. Poets, barely a blip on our cultural radar, once dared to shape public opinion.
Convention is the dwarfish demon styled
That foiled the knights in Marialva’s dome:
Of brains (if brains they had) he them beguiled,
And turned a nation’s shallow joy to gloom.
Here Folly dashed to earth the victor’s plume,
And Policy regained what Arms had lost:
For chiefs like ours in vain may laurels bloom!
Woe to the conquering, not the conquered host,
Since baffled Triumph droops on Lusitania’s coast.
Byron says the treaty was signed in Cintra, “in Marialva’s dome”, but historian Napier, author of the History of the Peninsular War, says it was signed 30 miles away. Also, it turns out Byron omitted some verses from the original manuscript, “at the entreaty of his friends” because of the insults he hurled at those in power.
Lusitania is the ancient name of Portugal. (In an unrelated note, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915 by German U-Boats, as you might recall, created public outrage in America, leading to its entry into WWI.)
And ever since that martial synod met,
Britannia sickens, Cintra, at thy name;
And folks in office at the mention fret,
And fain would blush, if blush they could, for shame.
How will posterity the deed proclaim!
Will not our own and fellow-nations sneer,
To view these champions cheated of their fame,
By foes in fight o’erthrown, yet victors here,
Where Scorn her finger points through many a coming year?
Byron disparagingly calls the convention a “martial synod” (synods refer to ecclesiastical assemblies).
One odd note: in Texas, the name Cintra (a Spanish multinational) is associated with the controversial construction of privatized toll roads.
So deemed the Childe, as o’er the mountains he
Did take his way in solitary guise:
Sweet was the scene, yet soon he thought to flee,
More restless than the swallow in the skies:
Though here awhile he learned to moralise,
For Meditation fixed at times on him,
And conscious Reason whispered to despise
His early youth misspent in maddest whim;
But as he gazed on Truth, his aching eyes grew dim.
To horse! to horse! he quits, for ever quits
A scene of peace, though soothing to his soul:
Again he rouses from his moping fits,
But seeks not now the harlot and the bowl.
Onward he flies, nor fixed as yet the goal
Where he shall rest him on his pilgrimage;
And o’er him many changing scenes must roll,
Ere toil his thirst for travel can assuage,
Or he shall calm his breast, or learn experience sage.
Byronic heroes, like Childe Harold, are moody and restless. There will be much traveling, until toil ends his wanderlust, or until he calms down or obtains wisdom. Speaking of toil, I assume he’s referring to the strain of travel, because as far as I can tell, Byron never had to work at a real job.
Yet Mafra shall one moment claim delay,
Where dwelt of yore the Lusians’ luckless queen;
And church and court did mingle their array,
And mass and revel were alternate seen;
Lordlings and freres—ill-sorted fry, I ween!
But here the Babylonian whore had built
A dome, where flaunts she in such glorious sheen,
That men forget the blood which she hath spilt,
And bow the knee to Pomp that loves to garnish guilt.
Mafra is northwest of Lisbon, site of the Palacio de Mafra.
fry = individuals; members of a group or class
ween = believe (another archaic word)
Why was the Maria I a luckless queen? Well, according to a footnote I found on Google Books: “The queen laboured under a kind of melancholy derangement, from which she never recovered.” Another footnote from an 1899 edition, edited by Earnest Hertley Coleridge, said that it was the death of her husband, combined with the death of her favorite confessor, and the death of her son that “turned her brain.” Although that fact that she married her uncle, Pedro III, makes me wonder whether she was all there to begin with.
O’er vales that teem with fruits, romantic hills,
(Oh that such hills upheld a free-born race!)
Whereon to gaze the eye with joyaunce fills,
Childe Harold wends through many a pleasant place.
Though sluggards deem it but a foolish chase,
And marvel men should quit their easy chair,
The toilsome way, and long, long league to trace.
Oh, there is sweetness in the mountain air
And life, that bloated Ease can never hope to share.
Oh, there is sweetness in the mountain air And life, that bloated Ease can never hope to share.
More bleak to view the hills at length recede,
And, less luxuriant, smoother vales extend:
Immense horizon-bounded plains succeed!
Far as the eye discerns, withouten end,
Spain’s realms appear, whereon her shepherds tend
Flocks, whose rich fleece right well the trader knows—
Now must the pastor’s arm his lambs defend:
For Spain is compassed by unyielding foes,
And all must shield their all, or share Subjection’s woes.
Spain is surrounded by enemies! (compassed = encompassed). I give credit to Byron — why hang out in a resort when you can enter a war zone?
Where Lusitania and her Sister meet,
Deem ye what bounds the rival realms divide?
Or e’er the jealous queens of nations greet,
Doth Tayo interpose his mighty tide?
Or dark sierras rise in craggy pride?
Or fence of art, like China’s vasty wall?—
Ne barrier wall, ne river deep and wide,
Ne horrid crags, nor mountains dark and tall
Rise like the rocks that part Hispania’s land from Gaul
Unlike the barrier that separates “Hispania’s land from Gaul” [Spain from France], there is no geographic barrier that separates “Lusitania and her Sister” [Spain and Portugal].
dark sierras = long jagged mountain chains. The word applies especially to mountain ranges having irregular or serrated outlines. (From Spanish serra, or saw.)
Tayo = Tajo, the largest river of the Iberian peninsula.
But these between a silver streamlet glides,
And scarce a name distinguisheth the brook,
Though rival kingdoms press its verdant sides.
Here leans the idle shepherd on his crook,
And vacant on the rippling waves doth look,
That peaceful still ‘twixt bitterest foemen flow:
For proud each peasant as the noblest duke:
Well doth the Spanish hind the difference know
‘Twixt him and Lusian slave, the lowest of the low.
the “silver streamlet” = the 1899 edition says this is the Caia River, a tributary of the Guadiana, mentioned next.
hind = by this word, Byron is referring to farmhands or rustics. Again with the bashing of the Lusians!
But ere the mingling bounds have far been passed,
Dark Guadiana rolls his power along
In sullen billows, murmuring and vast,
So noted ancient roundelays among.
Whilome upon his banks did legions throng
Of Moor and Knight, in mailed splendour drest;
Here ceased the swift their race, here sunk the strong;
The Paynim turban and the Christian crest
Mixed on the bleeding stream, by floating hosts oppressed.
roundelay = a song or poem with a refrain
Muslim and Christian forces clashed on the banks of the Guadiana. Byron’s eyes always seem to see past and present simultaneously.
Oh, lovely Spain! renowned, romantic land!
Where is that standard which Pelagio bore,
When Cava’s traitor-sire first called the band
That dyed thy mountain-streams with Gothic gore?
Where are those bloody banners which of yore
Waved o’er thy sons, victorious to the gale,
And drove at last the spoilers to their shore?
Red gleamed the cross, and waned the crescent pale,
While Afric’s echoes thrilled with Moorish matrons’ wail.
Asturias refers to an independent Christian kingdom that existed between 718 and 910 A.D. (the map below is the modern principality, but the terrority is nearly the same as the medieval kingdom). Asturias was formed by Visigothic nobles and officials who had been displaced by the Muslim invasion of Spain. The Visigoths elected Pelagio (Pelayo) as the first Asturian king. Pelayo is a legendary figure, serving as a leader and symbol of Christian resistance to the Moorish invaders.
“… the Moors did not find mountainous territory easy to conquer, and the lands along Spain’s northern coast never fully became part of Islamic Spain.” – wikipedia
Cava’s traitor-sire = Count Julian. In 711 A.D. Julian allowed the moors to enter Spain. This was done out of vengeance against Don Roderick, who had violated his daughter, Cava. (Roderick, also spelled Roderic, or in Spanish Rodrigo, was king of Visigothic Spain).
Okay, what’s all this about? Well:
According to an historian writing a century and a half after the events, Julian sent one of his daughters to Roderic’s court at Toledo for education and Roderic subsequently made her pregnant. When Julian learned of the affair he removed his daughter from Roderic’s court and, out of vengeance, betrayed Hispania to the Muslim invaders, thus making possible the Umayyad conquest of Hispania. Later ballads and chronicles inflated this tale, Muslims making her out as an innocent virgin who was ravished, Christians making her a seductress. In Spanish she came to be known as la Cava Rumía. But this might well only be a legend. Personal power politics were more likely at play… – from Wikipedia
“Cava Rumia” translates as “the wicked Christian woman.” Miguel de Cervantes refers to a place named after her in his novel, Don Quixote.
Teems not each ditty with the glorious tale?
Ah! such, alas, the hero’s amplest fate!
When granite moulders and when records fail,
A peasant’s plaint prolongs his dubious date.
Pride! bend thine eye from heaven to thine estate,
See how the mighty shrink into a song!
Can volume, pillar, pile, preserve thee great?
Or must thou trust Tradition’s simple tongue,
When Flattery sleeps with thee, and History does thee wrong?
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
Full swiftly Harold wends his lonely way
Where proud Sevilla triumphs unsubdued:
Yet is she free? the Spoiler’s wished-for prey!
Soon, soon shall Conquest’s fiery foot intrude,
Blackening her lovely domes with traces rude.
Inevitable hour! ‘Gainst fate to strive
Where Desolation plants her famished brood
Is vain, or Ilion, Tyre might yet survive,
And Virtue vanquish all, and Murder cease to thrive
Ilion = Ilos was the founder of Illium or Illion, also known as Troy, which of course was destroyed by the Greeks.
Tyre = An ancient seaport. Despite being an island city fortified with walls, Alexander the Great managed to conquer it in a siege in 332 B.C. He built a causeway allowing him to bring his catapults (ballistas) within firing range.
But all unconscious of the coming doom,
The feast, the song, the revel here abounds;
Strange modes of merriment the hours consume,
Nor bleed these patriots with their country’s wounds:
Nor here War’s clarion, but Love’s rebeck sounds;
Here Folly still his votaries inthralls;
And young-eyed Lewdness walks her midnight rounds:
Girt with the silent crimes of Capitals,
Still to the last kind Vice clings to the tott’ring walls.
I’m sure other egregious anecdotes from history can attest to this unfortunate phenomenon: elites party while their countrymen die in war.
clarion = a clarion is a medieval trumpet. As the familiar adjective, it means: “brilliantly clear <her clarion top notes>; also : loud and clear <a clarion call to action>.
rebeck = a rebeck or rebec is a medieval, three-stringed instrument. See angel.
votaries = devotees / admirers / worshippers
inthralled = enthralled
In “The Making of the Poets, Byron and Shelley in Their Time” by Ian Gilmour, there is a great chapter describing the details of Byron’s grand tour, which, thanks to its juicy details, serves as the equivalent of a “VH1 – Behind the Pilgrimage” special. Here’s what happened in Seville:
“Owing to ‘the Grand Junta being settled here’, Hobhouse recorded, Seville had ‘30,000 more than ordinary inhabitants’, so he, Byron and the servants ended up ‘all in one little room’ in the house of two attractive Spanish ladies. From them, Byron soon found the ‘reserve [was] not the characteristic of … Spanish Belles’, who were ‘form’d for all the witching arts of love’. The night before he left, one of them, who was shortly to be married, invited Byron to ‘come to bed to’ her, an invitation made all the more enticing, presumably, by Byron’s overcrowded bedroom. But the lady wanted his ring as well, which he refused to give her. The resulting discord was perhaps part of the reason why Byron did not precede her future husband to bed. Although a few months later he wrote in Childe Harold that ‘Brisk confidence still best with woman copes’, another part of it may have been that never having made love to a lady of his own class — in that very limited sense he was still a virgin — Byron got stage fright. In any case he accepted a three-foot lock of the lady’s hair while rejecting the rest of her. Keeping quiet about the ring to his mother, he cheerfully told her that his ‘virtue’ had induced him to decline the lady’s invitation, an assertion which may have raised Catherine’s eyebrows.”
Not so the rustic—with his trembling mate
He lurks, nor casts his heavy eye afar,
Lest he should view his vineyard desolate,
Blasted below the dun hot breath of War.
No more beneath soft Eve’s consenting star
Fandango twirls his jocund castanet:
Ah, Monarchs! could ye taste the mirth ye mar,
Not in the toils of Glory would ye fret;
The hoarse dull drum would sleep, and Man be happy yet!
“the dun hot breath of War” – Dun is a word not commonly heard in the United States. It has several meanings, but to dun is to demand payment, in a persistent, pestering way. My guess is that here dun means pestering / plaguing; in the sense that war constantly demands payment in lives.
Eve = evening
Fandango = a Spanish dance, here personified. The dance is accompanied by guitars and castanets.
jocund = cheerful; merry; gay; blithe; glad
castanet = “either of a pair of concave pieces of wood held in the palm and clicked together, usually to accompany dancing” [dictionary.com]
How carols now the lusty muleteer?
Of Love, Romance, Devotion is his lay,
As whilome he was wont the leagues to cheer,
His quick bells wildly jingling on the way?
No! as he speeds, he chants “Vivā el Rey!”
And checks his song to execrate Godoy,
The royal wittol Charles, and curse the day
When first Spain’s queen beheld the black-eyed boy,
And gore-faced Treason sprung from her adulterate joy.
Muleteer = one who drives mules; pronounced with three syllables. lay= song
execrate = to curse.
Godoy = a most hated man! Byron, in his notes writes, “It is to this man that the Spaniards universally impute the ruin of their country.”
wittol = a man who knows of his wife’s infidelity and puts up with it, in this case, King Charles (Carlos)
Viva La Rey = “Long Live the King” / King Ferdinand the VII.
One thought on “The Childe Harold Project”
Thanks for the references. Looking forward for the remainder of Canto 1 and on through Canto 4.