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His travels were not, at first, the self-impelled act of a mind severing itself in lonely roaming from all participation with the society to which it belonged, but rather obeying the general motion of the mind of that society.

The Edinburgh Review on Childe Harold, June 1818

The first two cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Romaunt are the most neglected of Byron’s major works. There have been a few considerations recently, but for the most part these opening portions of Byron’s defining poem wait by the roadside, a pair of broken dandies on their travels, while critics welcome other texts – Harold’s third and fourth cantos, the dramas, and, always, Don Juan.[1] Yet in choosing to concentrate on these later works, scholars risk missing an important step in Byron’s philosophical development: the first. If one can find buried in Harold I & II the basis for every critical and public assumption afterward made about their writer, one should not, perhaps, be surprised to find there the basis of Byron’s own future thought as well. Yet although scholars have frequently affirmed the truth of the first half of that statement, none has yet considered the possibilities inherent in the second. Critics acknowledge that Childe Harold I & II mark the birth of that most forward of infants, the Byronic Hero, but they do not realize that the cantos also herald another moment of origin, the beginning of a Byronic concept of knowledge.

Byron’s most obvious involvement with this concept in Harold I & II takes the form of a direct engagement with the visual. At first glance, the poem seems to participate in the validation of sight as a conduit to understanding that characterized late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century British culture. Upon closer inspection, however, the cantos emphatically subvert what they seem to uphold. Moreover, this subversion is merely the most obvious of many challenges the poem offers to the conventional idea of knowledge as stable and reliable. With these challenges, the first two cantos of Childe Harold mark the start of Byron’s investigations into the nature of knowing.

Harold is a poem devoted by its very nature to the visual, and to showing its readers how to see. For whatever its novelties and innovations – and they were legion – the work was a still an example of one of England’s most successful literary genres, the travel narrative. Travel literature had been popular in England since its first published appearance there in the Early Modern period.[2] As the Napoleonic Wars effectively cut England off from Europe and the East, however, travel writing was similarly constrained. As a result, there was a rise in travel narratives that focused on the delights of Britain itself. Not that such literature was entirely new: like the larger genre that contained it, British domestic travel writing had existed for quite some time, first achieving prominence when it began to serve as a means of inculcating national pride in the Tudor period,[3] and becoming increasingly popular with the rise of the cult of the picturesque and the increase in “Romantic influences” (Korte 77) in the course of the eighteenth century (one thinks here of William Gilpin’s works, for example). In the war years that stretched from 1793 to 1815, however, Britons were constrained from European travel as never before. This, combined with the need to create a sense of British pride, power, and worth in the face of the French threat, led to a boom in travel literature that focused on the nation itself. In place of exotic European locales came domestic scenes such as those described in Daniel Webb’s Observations and Remarks, During Four Excursions, Made to Various Parts of Great Britain in the Years 1810 and 1811 and Wordsworth’s Guide to the Lakes (1810). [4] Poetical works set abroad were also replaced with localized epics such as John Thelwall’s The Hope of Albion; or Edwin of Northumbria (1801); John Ogilvie’s Britannia: A National Epic Poem in Twenty Books (1801), and Robert Southey’s Madoc (1805). Such texts sought to offset the lack of European access by creating a British epic mythology.

In contrast, Byron offered audiences a glimpse of the continent largely lost to them for nearly two decades.[5] As its opening announcement makes clear, Childe Harold allowed the thwarted traveller to view the real, contemporary Europe, as well as exotic locales farther east: “The following poem was written, for the most part, amidst the scenes which it attempts to describe. It was begun in Albania; and the parts relative to Spain and Portugal were composed from the author’s observations in those countries” (CPW 2: 56).[6] Just as these sentences firmly announce Harold’s place in the travel genre, so do they acknowledge the more than usual authority the poem grants to seeing. It bases its claim to legitimacy on its status as a record of the visual: “composed from the author’s observations.”

Similarly, the poem proper announces from the beginning that it is a work in which sight is the dominant mode of experiencing events and emotions:

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 vex’d with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.

Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,

Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;

Few things on earth found favour in his sight

Save concubines and carnal companie,

And flaunting wassailers of high and low degree.


The nature of Harold’s wickedness is hazy when it is defined by what he does or does not enjoy doing: readers are told only that he “ne in virtue’s ways did take delight” “spent his days in riot most uncouth”, and, most opaquely, “vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.” When the narrator turns to sight, however, the nature of Harold’s transgressions is much clearer and, because of their specificity, much more shocking: concubines, carnality, and unseemly, class-blending, revelry. These enjoyments themselves are rendered more offensive by their association with vision, the wassailers becoming even more shameful (and shameless) because they are “flaunting,” wantonly visual.

Furthermore, the poem goes on to present Harold’s attempt at reform in visual terms, as well. Overwhelmed and satiated as he is, he does not resolve to alter himself so much as to alter, literally, his view.

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 congeal’d the drop within his ee:

Apart he stalk’d in joyless reverie,

And from his native land resolved to go,

And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;

With pleasure drugg’d, he almost long’d for woe,

And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.


Just as evil is defined by sight, so repair can be attained by “change of scene.” In fact, the stanza suggests that there is no difference between repair and change of scene; “sore sick at heart,” Harold seeks to leave his native land, as if the very act of removing himself will cleanse the pride-clouded “ee.”

That Byron chose to emphasize the visual in his epic is scarcely surprising in view of the increasing social and cultural dominance of visuality in late Georgian Britain. Although interest and pleasure in visual forms of culture predate the beginning of the 1700’s, they became increasingly stronger as the century progressed. This was due in part to technological advances – the rise of English engraving, for example, owed much to improvements in methods and quality of print reproduction (Wood 71) – but also to the growing number of people with sufficient funds and leisure time to indulge their desire to view prints, paintings, plays, and spectacles. In considering the eighteenth century’s “consumer revolution,” Neil McKendrick issues a combined caveat and explanation that might serve the rise of the visual equally well: it was not that “the desire to consume was an eighteenth-century novelty. It was the ability to do so which was new” (2). Similarly, as the century progressed, the ability to view – venues for display and the leisure time and wherewithal to visit them – increased. As a result, so did interest in all aspects of viewing. These increases resulted in a profoundly visual culture in the years surrounding the writing of Childe Harold in 1809-11, and its publication in 1812.

Perhaps the clearest indication of this turn toward the visual in Georgian England is the appearance of public museums. In the mid-eighteenth century large numbers of museums begin to open in the capital and throughout the nation. With the opening of the British Museum in 1753 and the Royal Academy of Art in 1768, it became possible for the public to see objects and art previously unavailable to them, and those who could afford it flocked in droves to do so.[7] In 1791, John Boydell opened his Shakespeare Gallery, which freed its patrons to take visual spectacle home: central to Boydell’s plan for success was his idea that visitors could purchase engravings of their favorite Gallery paintings. Indeed, Byron’s own library contained a copy of The Large Plates to Boydell’s Shakespeare in proof (Marshall 32).[8] Two years after Boydell launched his venture, Robert Barker’s Panorama opened, allowing its visitors to experience painted scenes as if in media res. Although despised by the elite (Constable found it “loathsome”), the Panorama attracted the middle-class in droves, a perfect of example of what Gillen D’Arcy Wood calls the “boom” in “middlebrow visual entertainment.”[9] Capitalizing on the ongoing Wars, Barker offered his patrons views of cities from which the circumstantial embargo on Continental travel had cut them off – Naples, Milan, Rome, Florence, Constantinople – and battles known to them only by report (Galperin 42). It was, as Wood describes it, an “educational, family friendly show” (103).

Even if they were not inclined to pay, spectators could entertain themselves by viewing cartoons and prints for free in the windows of shops such as Ackermann’s Repository of Arts in the Strand and Colnaghi in Cockspur Street. The popularity of these displays reached its peak with Queen Caroline’s trial in 1820, but turn-of-the-century cartoons of crowds gathered around printshop windows make it plain that the activity was widely prevalent long before George IV decided to air his marital difficulties. Furthermore, such representations show that this ogling knew no class boundaries. High and low alike gathered to crane their necks, fill their eyes, and learn about current events.

Add to these daytime enjoyments the pleasures of the stage. David Garrick made his theatre debut in 1741, his naturalistic acting style ushering in a period in which what Marilyn Gaull calls “visual as opposed to verbal presentation” predominated on the stage (257). If the theatre was not free, it certainly could be cheap enough to be accessible to almost all. Moreover, the huge growth in theatre-building during the last decades of the eighteenth-century testifies to its popularity: Gillian Russell cites an 1803-04 survey in which theatre manages James Winston counted 280 provincial playhouses, a reckoning that leaves out the tents and temporary stages of travelling troupes (224-25). An evening at the (permanent) theatre usually included a main piece, followed by a musical interlude, and an afterpiece such as a farce, pantomime, or ballet: a feast for the eye.

All in all, it is clear that the culture of late Georgian Britain was one of display, with opportunities for viewing, considering, and even experiencing vicariously, available as never before. John Brewer’s description of a day in the life of Anna Larpent, wife of the Inspector of Plays for the Lord Chamberlain, demonstrates the range of visual delights available to the spectator. On April 9, 1792, Larpent and her two sons

left their house in Newman Street in the West End of London to see the kangaroo on exhibit from Botany Bay [...] [T]he family proceeded to the Polygraphic Exhibition in Schomberg House on Pall Mall. Here they saw a display of a number of mechanical reproductions of oil paintings manufactured by the portrait painter and theatrical manager, Joseph Booth. Anna and her husband [...] went to Covent Garden to see the evening’s performance: Thomas Holcroft’s sentimental comedy, The Road to Ruin, and an afterpiece, Oscar and Malvinda [...]

Brewer 230

An entire day could be passed in visual entertainment.

At the same time as opportunities for viewing grew, however, so did the social implications of that activity. Larpent hints at the potential class inflections in her diary: “There is a great difference between staring and seeing,” she writes, “—the one is merely Corporeal[;] the other unites the mental to the bodily powers and lays in a stock of ideas” (qtd. in Brewer 241). As her comment suggests, seeing was encouraged; staring, frowned upon. Gawking retained its place and power certainly, for the eighteenth century saw a rise in popular displays and wonders. There were the fireworks at Vauxhall Gardens (begun in 1798); waxworks; wondrous animals such as the Learned Pig that appeared on the scene in 1785, described by Robert Southey as “in his day a far greater object of admiration to the English nation than ever was Isaac Newton” (III:49). In short, there were countless monstrosities and marvels of the type given such vivid life in Book VII of The Prelude:

All moveables of wonder from all parts

Are here, albinos, painted Indians, dwarfs,

The horse of knowledge, and the learned pig,

The stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,

Giants, ventriloquists, the invisible girl,

The bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,

The waxwork, clockwork, all the marvellous craft

Of modern Merlins, wild-beasts, puppet-shows

All out-o’-th’-way, far-fetched, perverted things [...][10]

lines 680-88

Yet, as Wordsworth’s final line more than suggests, if staring had its place, that place was not a good one. While “the late Georgian public’s appetite was less for revolutions in lyric poetry than for the ‘outrageous stimulations’ of the new visual entertainment culture” (Wood 6-7), those who judged and shaped refinement sternly divided the gawkers from the genteel.[11] There was an acknowledged difference between the vulgar crowd and the elite; not surprisingly, the vulgar did not come out on top. In an era which invested increasingly in the ideas of taste and discernment, the ability to see “correctly,” to demonstrate gentility by means of an appropriate response to the visual, became ever more important.

Arbiters of taste were clear about the vital role that genteel vision played in validating one as a person of both good sense and refinement. As early as 1711 Joseph Addison demonstrated in The Spectator the way in which a particular kind of visual response marked out high from low: “A man of polite imagination is let into a great many pleasures, that the vulgar are not capable of receiving [...] He meets with a secret refreshment in a description, and often feels a greater satisfaction in the prospect of fields and meadows, than another does in the possession” (No. 411). For Addison, “polite imagination” is inextricably linked with a way of seeing, and this way of seeing with greater understanding and deeper comprehension. As the date of these remarks shows, the notion that a significant connection existed between vision and understanding was well-rooted in English culture by the time Byron arrived on the scene, and it remained prevalent into the nineteenth century.

The skilled eye, moreover, was understood to be an instructor of morality. Authors of the literature of Sentiment and Sensibility so popular in the period underscored again and again the important role of visual experiences in cultivating morals. Novels such as Henry Mackenzie’s Man of Feeling and aesthetic criticism like Lord Kames’s Elements of Criticism (both part of Byron’s library) held that visual experiences were a conduit to the growth of political and moral decency (Marshall 34, 42). Viewing a pathetic scene compelled the spectator to exercise sympathy; good taste, for its part, strengthened “the bond of society” (Dwyer 111; Hemingway 53). In 1748, William Gilpin mused, “there appears to be a very visible connection between an improved taste for pleasure, and a taste for virtue: when I [...] stand astonished before the cartoons, [...] I can feel my mind expand itself, my notions enlarge, and my heart better disposed, either for a religious thought or a benevolent action” (qtd. in Bermingham 104). This benevolence was also connected with greater knowledge and understanding. Writing in his Memoirs around 1789, Edward Gibbon averred that “a correct and exquisite eye which commands the landskip of a country, discerns the merits of a picture, and measures the proportions of a building is more closely connected with the finer feelings of the mind” (136). Improved morality was the result of increased comprehension, and both were the result of visual ability.

In short, visual discernment and judgment were firmly linked throughout the Georgian period. Moreover, the notion that such perspicacity needed to be cultivated was also well established. The transformation from one of the vulgar to owner of “a correct and exquisite way” could only be achieved by training. Discernment was “a judgement which must be improved by extensive study and meditation”; tellingly, Kames referred to the refinement of taste as a “discipline” (Hemingway 57; Kames 333). One required demonstrations not just of what was worth seeing but of how to see it, of the sight that yielded gentility.

This need for instruction was answered. The Royal Academy provided a guide to its exhibitions, while the Panorama offered a written accompaniment to its canvasses, with program notes that gave historical background for what was being viewed, as well as a guide to significant landmarks (Wood 101-2). Drawing manuals that detailed what to draw and why, as well as guidebooks that told one what to look at and why (and, sometimes, how to behave while looking) began “as a trickle in the early decades of the eighteenth century and reach[ed] a flood in the following century.” They were joined by a new genre, philosophical criticism, which strove to lay bare the underlying tenets of taste in order that it might be understood and acquired by those who sought it (Bermingham 781; Hemingway 48). Popular reading abounded in volumes of collected writings designed to cultivate perspicacity: not merely the Elegant Extracts that Byron took with him on his Levantine travels, but Select Pieces of Poetry intended to Promote Piety and Virtue in the Minds of Young People; The Young Gentleman and Lady’s Poetical Preceptor;[12] and The Beauties of Thought on Various Subjects in Prose and Verse Selected from the Best Authors. Calculated for the Improvements of the Minds of Readers of Every Class (St. Clair 541-42). An audience previously unexposed to such direction was now being trained in the delicate skill of discernment.

The first installment of Childe Harold was suited in more ways than one to this audience. To begin with, its fictional hero was a member of the aristocracy. In his Essays on Taste, first printed in 1790 and popular enough to be republished in the same year that Childe Harold I & II first appeared, Archibald Alison expressed the belief that “[i]t is only in the higher stations [...] or in the liberal professions of life, that we expect to find men of either delicate or comprehensive taste” (I: 89). The nominal hero of the poem was, of course, a bona fide holder of one of the higher stations. His line and name are not revealed, but he is the inheritor of that most certain mark of the elite, a family hall, “[...] a vast and venerable pile; / So old, it seemed only not to fall, / Yet strength was pillar’d in each massy aisle” (I.7). Harold, in short, stood as a symbol of something much larger than himself: the upper classes that were held up as a model for those who hoped to achieve greater discernment.

Even better, the author of the poem was himself a genuine aristocrat. At this stage Byron was not the Prince of Darkness catchall he would become, but was familiar to his newspaper- and quarterly-reading audience as the noble author of Hours of Idleness and possessor of a seat in the House of Lords. John Murray made sure to place Byron’s title front and center in advertisements for Childe Harold in The Times and elsewhere: Lord Byron’s new Poem.—In a few days will be published, handsomely printed in 4to. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage; a Poem: written during the Author’s Travels in Portugal, Spain, Albania, and some of the most interesting parts of Greece [...] By LORD BYRON” (Childe). Byron’s nobility served an important purpose for the readership, for it let them tread vicariously on exclusive ground. Byron’s intrepid nature – “I goes into society (with my pocket pistols),” he wrote to Francis Hodgson from Portugal (BLJ 1: 215) – made him relish a journey that most feared to take, and his money and nobility allowed him the privilege of taking it in the first place. The poem that resulted offered its readers both sights from which they were otherwise barred and the opportunity to learn how to see these sights like a lord.[13] They could be certain that the lessons taught by such an author as Byron, and such a character as Harold, were worth learning.

Early in Canto I, for example, as Harold’s ship enters Portuguese waters, the narrator directs attention to the unfolding view with a remark that is both announcement and direction: “New shores descried make every bosom gay” (14.201). There follows a description that might have been written both by and expressly for the artistic connoisseur whom Joshua Reynolds described in 1798: a man who, “like a sovereign judge [...] free from the hurry of business,” has acquired the skill of “looking upon objects at large, and observing the effect which they have on the eye when it is dilated, and employed upon the whole, without seeing any of the parts distinctly” (1: 182; 2: 48). The narrator and Harold, and, vicariously, the reader, see

Cintra’s mountain [greet] 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.


The genteelly dilated eye beholds all, and the superiority of those who view the scene is underlined by the inclusion of the “few rustics”: the lower orders work the land; the upper orders, including the reader, stay on the boat.

In the extended description of Portugal and Lisbon that follows these lines, Byron[14] seems to train his readers’ eyes bit by bit, progressively revealing the city and deepening understanding of it by means of sight. Each successive stanza begins with a visual cue – “Oh, Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land!” “What beauties doth Lisboa first unfold! / Her image floating on that noble tide” (I.15; I.16, my emphases). Each of these is followed by a description and by a meditation that complicates the original observation. For example, the stanza that begins, “Oh, Christ! it is a goodly sight to see / What heaven hath done for this delicious land!” twists in the middle, complicating that initial exclamation:

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.


The first glimpse is not enough. What makes the view more than a series of clichés (the delicious land with its blushing fruits and goodly prospects) is the thought that follows, the consideration of the juxtaposition between nature’s gifts to Portugal and man’s depredations of the same country. Through this consideration the narrator arrives at a broader conclusion, a religious philosophy that makes vengeance against France not merely the result of jingoism, but the inevitable punishment for moral transgression.

Similarly, the stanza that opens with an apostrophe to the beauties of Lisbon goes on to juxtapose that initial impression with the harsh realities revealed in a second glance; the beauties that first unfolded hide “A nation swoln with ignorance and pride, / Who lick yet loath the hand that waves the sword / To save them from the wrath of Gaul’s unsparing lord” (I.16).[15] Byron seems to be teaching the reader to note the complexities that invest a sight with meaning, to “lay in a stock of ideas,” as Anna Larpent put it. Vision thus leads to a grasp of the intricacy – political, social, geographical – of the sight viewed, even as sight itself becomes a more intricate process. The reader’s eye is progressively trained not only to stare more comprehensively, but to see more comprehendingly.

Of course, Byron is not the only Romantic writer to encourage his readers to look beneath the obvious. Anna Barbauld’s 1811, with its vision of nature “Bounteous in vain, with frantic man at strife,” or the ironic “weep weep” that William Blake puts in the mouth of his chimney sweep, are but two examples of similar Romantic encouragements. Yet despite the evidence of first impressions, Byron’s project is not that of these contemporaries. For a closer look reveals that his vision of Portugal leads not to comprehension, even comprehension of complexities, but to confusion. Not only does each meditation complicate the observation that preceded it, but each progressive observation and its accompanying meditation move the reader’s focus to a completely different area, so that at one moment one is contemplating rustics on the shore, but at the next one is considering the military relationship between Portugal and England, and at the next the plight of the Portuguese people. Moving from one short burst to the next, often within a single stanza, the reader is apt to be disoriented, not absorbed. The complexities may result not in deeper understanding, but in the impression that there can be no understanding at all. Stanzas undermine themselves, and elements within them destabilize precisely the comprehension and power that sight is supposed to give the viewing reader.

This progression is evident in the stanza that guides the reader through Lisbon:

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 ee;

For hut and palace show like filthily:

The dingy denizens are rear’d in dirt;

Ne personage of high or mean degree

Doth care for cleanness of surtout or shirt,

Though shent with Egypt’s plague, unkempt, unwash’d, unhurt.


The supposed attainment of deeper understanding – as the narrator pulls back the “sheening” cover of Lisbon to reveal the grubby actuality beneath – is undone by the instabilities inherent in that “understanding.” Direction and physical placement are compromised: the observer will “wander up and down.” Rich and poor become equal: “Hut and palace show like filthily.” Meaning itself is confounded in the final line, first by Byron’s perverse use of the arcane “shent” (employed by Spenser, but no longer used in Byron’s time), then by his mention of the puzzlingly specific, but unspecified, “Egypt’s plague” (is this Napoleon? One of the ten plagues? If so, which one?). Finally, “unhurt,” placed at the end of the stanza, throws what preceded into question: Byron says that Lisbon’s denizens are filthy; they are degraded, disgraced (“shent”) (Def. 1a); yet he also says they remain unhurt. That he presumably means this final adjective ironically – contrasting physical wholeness with political mortification – only adds to the interpretive difficulties. Which is the reader to believe, that the Portuguese are unharmed; that they are degraded morally but not physically; or that they are filthy both physically and morally? As the stanza has already suggested, it is impossible to be certain, for here are many things that readers’ eyes will never parse, much that is “unsightly to strange ee.”

Byron repeats this peculiar act of visual confusion again and again throughout Childe Harold’s first canto. Frequently, he produces instability through heavy irony, as when he describes the Battle of Talavera as “a splendid sight to see / (For one who has no friend, no brother there),” vividly painting its “rival scarfs of mixed embroidery, / [...] various arms that glitter in the air,” before pointing out that “The Grave shall bear the chiefest prize away” (I.40),[16] or when he describes the bullfight of Cadiz, representing it simultaneously as valorous combat in miniature and base brutality at its worst:

Again he [the bull] comes; nor dart nor lance avail,

Nor the wild plunging of the tortur’d horse;

Though man and man’s avenging arms assail,

Vain are his weapons, vainer is his force.

One gallant steed is stretch’d a mangled corse;

Another, hideous sight! unseam’d appears,

His gory chest reveals life’s panting source,

The death-struck still his feeble frame he rears,

Staggering, but stemming all, his lord unharm’d he bears.


If Byron mocks both the bullfight and war by representing the bullfight as war, he simultaneously provides the reader with a vivid representation of the pageantry and excitement of the event. The contest is thus both exalted and belittled, and the reader, who may turn away in disgust from what Byron calls “the ungentle sport that oft invites / The Spanish maid, and cheers the Spanish swain,” at the same time may find herself beguiled by his depiction of the “light-limb’d Matadore” and his “nimble courser” (I.80; I.74; I.76). This is an event that vision cannot help the reader understand, for here the visual fosters two understandings that, although logically contradictory, in fact co-exist.

Similarly, Byron effects disorientation by means of contrasting yet commingled descriptions, as when he unsettles his portrayal of the warlike Maid of Saragoza by inserting into his depiction of her ferocity a vision of her at peace:

[...] she, whom once the semblance of a scar

Appall’d, an owlet’s ’larum chill’d with dread,

Now views the column-scattering bay’net jar,

The falchion flash, and o’er the yet warm dead

Stalks with Minerva’s step where Mars might quake to tread.

Ye who shall marvel when you hear her tale,

Oh! had you known her in her softer hour,

Mark’d her black eye that mocks her coal-black veil,

Heard her light, lively tones in Lady’s bower,

Seen her long locks that foil the painter’s power,

Her fairy form, with more than female grace,

Scarce would you deem that Saragoza’s tower

Beheld her smile in Danger Gorgon’s face,

Thin the clos’d ranks, and lead in Glory’s fearful chase.


While this is an admirably fully rounded portrait, its very fullness renders it cognitively destabilizing. The reader is abruptly and repeatedly moved back and forth between a version of the Maid as a frail flower and a version of her as a merciless warrior. As a result, although she is both, she is at the same time neither (a construction Byron will raise to an art form in the Eastern Tales). Delineations of the Maid thus reveal only that is impossible to delineate her with any certainty.

One could argue that such moments simply offer a form of irony, albeit a brutal one, that Byron, again, uses these and other such moments in Harold to heighten his reader’s awareness of the complexity of what she sees. But there is a dissonance in these portrayals that suggests Byron is not simply striving for the demonstration of complexity that is irony’s hallmark, but rather is seeking to challenge the idea of demonstration altogether. The elements of Byron’s depictions are contradictory, yet their contradictions are never resolved. Talavera is simultaneously glorious and shameful; the bullfight is both exciting and contemptible; the Maid must be seen as at the same time soft and terrifying. While these representations are accurate, they are not ironic so much as paradoxical. At best, the reader must attempt to reconcile two contradictory comprehensions of the same event, an exercise as likely to end in confusion than enlightenment. At worst (a worst which is, I think, the point of these moments) she must admit that no such reconciliation is possible, that contemplation in both its senses cannot yield understanding.

These challenges to discernment reach their zenith at the canto’s end, in Byron’s threnody for the dead John Wingfield. Here, he perplexes understanding by smudging almost to invisibility the line between life and death:

Though to my hopeless days for ever lost,

In dreams deny me not to see thee here!

And Morn in secret shall renew the tear

Of Consciousness awaking to her woes

And Fancy hover o’er thy bloodless bier,

Till my frail frame return to whence it rose,

And mourned and mourner lie united in repose.


In these tangled lines, Byron calls upon the dead man to appear alive in Byron’s dreams, and, conversely, pictures his own sleeping self as if it were dead; he and his friend will “lie united in repose.” The two visions are so entangled, and the one succeeds the other so quickly, that the reader cannot determine who is alive and who is dead. Paul Elledge may assert that “the stanza traces emotional passage from dejected egocentrism through a self-renewing realization of the magnitude of loss [...] to a reversal of sorts in the dark consolation of a fancied reunion” (130), but the reader cannot necessarily discern this as clearly as he. In fact, vision actively thwarts such discernment. This very thwarting gives the stanza its emotional force, however. One feels that Byron is in truth mourning – a truth revealed not through visual comprehension but through visual confusion.

Yet if Byron’s persistent undermining of the visual in this canto challenges eighteenth-century beliefs about the value of sight, it appears to announce his allegiance to an emerging nineteenth-century understanding of vision. This new approach understood visual experience and response not as objective but as subjective, influenced by the psychology of the perceiver as well as by light and shadow. It regarded vision as “inherently unstable,” as Anne Bermingham puts its, and accepted that perception “is always subjective, for finally we can experience [...] in no other way than through our own sense and sensibility” (125).[17] Viewed from this vantage point, the poetic technique of Childe Harold looks like determined adherence to the idea of the self-centered gaze and away from the Sentimental and Sensible belief that there was a “correct” way of seeing, and a “correct” way of comprehending what one saw. It would seem that the poem still wishes to teach the reader how to see correctly. It is just that “correctly” here means “afresh.”

This hypothesis must break down, however, in the face of the poem’s second canto, with its explosion of footnotes and appendices. Although the first canto also has notes, only in the second do they appear in such profusion. One reason for this is fairly clear: in the second canto, Byron ventures into countries with which his readers are less likely to be familiar, and so more editorial explanation is necessary. But these notes do not serve a straightforward instructive purpose. Indeed, as the canto progresses it becomes plain that their profusion is meant not to explain, but to unsettle.

In at least one case Byron uses his notes to effect a formal enactment of the visual instability he embeds in the text of the poem. When he translates a song of the Suliotes into English, glosses — even for English words — crowd the foot of the page. The line “Let the yellow-hair’d Giaours view his horse-tail with dread” alone receives three explanatory notes, one for “yellow,” one for “Giaour,” one for “horse-tail.”[18] These are perhaps enlightening, but they are also, to use Nigel Leask’s phrase, “at odds with the poetic text” (109). They force the reader into a bifurcated reading; she must constantly shift visual focus to the page bottom, then return to the text with concentration compromised. Byron literally disrupts the reader’s vision, forcing her to enact the disorder that he created in the early stanzas of the first canto with his sudden shifts in perspective. Whereas there the narrator shifted his gaze, here the reader does so, in a metatextual repetition of the earlier textual device.

In addition, Byron’s glosses also produce a more subtle, but perhaps more profound, cognitive disorientation. Appearing attached to what offers itself as a translation – “thus in concert they this lay half sang, half scream’d” (I.72) – the glosses in fact compromise that passage’s position as a translation. Byron offers such a quantity of clarifications that his stanzas start to resemble a foreign text in their own right. In at least one passage, quoted in part above, the exercise comes perilously near parody:

Dark Muchtar his son to the Danube is sped,

Let the yellow-haired* Giaours† view his horse-tail‡ with dread;

When his Delhis§ come dashing in blood o’er the banks,

How few shall escape from the Muscovite ranks!

lines 685-88

Should a translation really require so much translation? Tom Mole argues that, by glossing the foreign terms he inserts into his poems (or the foreign uses of familiar terms, such as “horse-tail”), “Byron reduces the frisson of alterity” these terms produce (92). I would argue just the reverse: that such glossing increases the frisson because it emphasizes the alterity. Moreover, I would argue that Byron uses this frisson as a deliberate means of fostering confusion. In choosing to translate his own translation, he produces a kind of mental cross-gartering of the concepts of “translation” and “foreign text”: this passage could be either and is simultaneously both. If only for a moment, and if only in a very small way, Byron thus seeks to make his reader unsure precisely what type of text she is encountering.

Whereas Byron employs these glosses to achieve such textual instability only subtly, he uses his notes and appendices to unsettle his text both more openly and more thoroughly. Instructive apparatus was virtually a requirement for the travel genre, of course, but Harold’s notes, full of clarification and general information though they are, are not typical explanatory devices. Breezy, witty, frequently pompous or tetchy, largely in the first person or inflected with personality, often they simply take up Byron’s own particular hobby-horses, and just as often they make no pretension to objectivity or politeness, in either sense of that word. Whereas Byron’s poem is a sublime and deliberately contemplative travelogue, his notes are, as Francis Jeffrey put it, “flippant, lively, tranchant and assuming [...] neither very deep nor very witty; though rather entertaining” (475). In a note supposedly intended to define “Pindus” in the melodramatic line, “He pass’d bleak Pindus, Acherusia’s lake” (II.47), for example, Byron writes, “According to Pouqueville, the lake of Yanina; but Pouqueville is always out.” Four lines later, the phrase “To greet Albania’s chief” gets the following explanation: “The celebrated Ali Pacha. Of this extraordinary man there is an incorrect account in Poqueville’s Travels.” In a long note on the meditative and exhortatory stanza 73 – “Fair Greece, sad relic of departed worth! / Immortal, though no more! though fallen, great!” – Byron begins with some snide raillery at the expense of Sydney Owenson:

Before I say anything about a city of which everybody, traveller or not, has though it necessary to say something, I will request Miss Owenson, when she next borrows an Athenian heroine for her four volumes, to have the goodness to marry her to somebody more of a gentleman than a “Disdar Aga,” (who by the by is not an Aga), the most impolite of petty officers, the greatest patron of larceny Athens ever saw (except Lord E[lgin]) and the unworthy occupant of the Acropolis [...]

CPW 2: 199

He goes on to give a rambling, lighthearted description of his experiences of Athens and its environs, and ends with a discussion of the character and potential of the Greeks. All of these latter digressions fulfill the requirements of a travel narrative, deepening as they do the reader’s view and understanding of the lands Byron describes. Yet, as the extract makes plain, all the remarks are so different in tone from the poem they supposedly augment, and so different in voice from that of either its narrator or its hero, that the effect is not to deepen the reader’s vision but to divert it by involving the reader in a completely different piece of writing. In fact, Jeffrey and a number of other reviewers drew attention to the dichotomy between notes and text. The anonymous critic of the Eclectic Review was perhaps loudest in his protestations, wondering if it could “be believed” that the same author who wrote passages of great beauty in the poem proper could also have written “the caustic animadversions on a book called Ida of Athens, the production of a Miss Owenson” (638-9).

As the poem begins its final section, destabilization continues to be reflected in the text proper. Byron fractures and contradicts visual experience by consistently setting surfaces against what lies beneath, thus emphasizing the dichotomy between the two. Turkish carnival, which he first offers as the arena of romantic delights – “Oh Love! young Love! bound in thy rosy band, / Let sage or cynic prattle as he will, / These hours, and only these, redeem Life’s years of ill!” – he soon upends to show what hides beneath: “But, midst the throng in merry masquerade, / Lurk there no hearts that throb with secret pain, / Even through the closest searment half betrayed?” (II.81-82). If he shows his reader the “true-born son of Greece / [...] who skulk[s] in peace,” he adds, “The bondsman’s peace, who sighs for all he lost, / Yet with smooth smile his tyrant can accost”; if he points out the plain of Marathon, it is “Unchanged in all except its foreign lord” (II.83; II.89). Each observation prefaces (or even contains) its own contradiction. Even episodes which seem straightforward, such as Byron’s observations of Turks in Constantinople, turn out to be visual ironies that disguise more than they reveal:

And whose [Carnival] more rife with merriment than thine,

Oh Stamboul, once the empress of their [the Greeks’] reign?

Though turbans now pollute Sophia’s shrine,

And Greece her very altars eyes in vain


Everywhere, appearance belies actuality, and a surface hides a contradictory depth. This is no demonstration of the subjectivity of vision. It is a demonstration of its inadequacy. Vision yields neither knowledge nor discernment, for everywhere it is crossed, destabilized, and subverted.

Pointing to Byron’s professed aversion to Sensibility and its tenets, Michael Vicario suggests that Harold I & II may reflect his efforts to sabotage “those aspects of ‘sickly Sensibility’” he finds at the core of the romance tradition” (112). This determination may well be what prompted Byron’s repeated demonstrations that the link between vision and knowledge, so dear to Sensible philosophies, is an illusion. But it cannot account for the cantos’ numerous other objections to the idea of a fixed, definitive knowledge. What at first seems an argument against relying too heavily on a certain conduit to enlightenment soon reveals itself as a wholesale challenge to understanding itself. Byron paints on a broad canvas, and visual destabilization is merely one color in his literary palette of doubt.

To begin with, there is the question of Harold’s journey, so smoothly called by its author a Pilgrimage. A number of critics have commented on the puzzlingly open-ended structure of this pilgrimage: Mark Storey puts it most simply when he says that the poem “does not know, any more than its hero, where it is going” (81).[19] Byron thus grounds his entire poetic undertaking in uncertainty. Harold wanders desultorily across the Levant, his end achievement apparently religious rejection rather than spiritual rejuvenation: “even gods must yield—religions take their turn: / [...] man shall learn / Vainly his incense soars, his victim bleeds” (II.3). What are readers to make of this aimless, agnostic pilgrim?

Confusing the matter even more, Byron gives his poem not one but two seemingly inappropriate labels, for Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. A Romaunt is no more romaunt than pilgrimage. Its early reviewers, certainly, were puzzled by the appellation. The Eclectic Review wrote that “[t]o those who may have been induced to anticipate [...] a tale of tournaments, and castles, and princesses, it may be useful to know that fancy could hardly form a being more unlike their old acquaintance, Amadis de Gaul, than is the hero of Lord Byron’s poem. Harold is an English country gentleman” (631).[20] It is not that Byron abandons the genres his title embraces – he refers repeatedly to Harold’s “pilgrimage”, at least, throughout the text. Rather, he simply endlessly defers a resolution to the question of the poem’s classification. Indeed, at the end of each canto he introduces yet a third style, elegy. All the confusion of genre is perhaps best summed up by the Critical Review: preparing to detail the plot, that magazine’s reviewer referred to “the plan of this poem (if it can be said to have any)” (611). In short Harold is, as Storey calls it, “a provisional poem” (81), but it is a provisional poem that that wears its provisionality on its sleeve. Thoroughly muddying his generic waters, Byron does nothing to calm them, preferring to bathe in the confusion. His reader, perforce, must join him.

As if this were not enough, Byron adds Harold’s cacophony of voices to the mix. A great deal of critical ink has been spilled over the question of precisely how many speakers populate Childe Harold: most scholars find two (the narrator and Harold), but a small minority hear three (the narrator, Harold, and a poet persona).[21] The difficulty with these voices, however, lies not in their number but in the attempt to determine which of them speaks when. While readers can, for example, be certain that the narrator utters the poem’s early descriptions of Harold, they cannot be sure who pronounces the opening invocation to the Muse. It seems unlikely that the narrator, aptly described by Frederick Shilstone as the epic’s “mythic consciousness” (19), would introduce the poem as “this lowly lay of mine” (I.1). Yet there is nothing but a stanza break to indicate that this speaker is a separate entity from the narrator whose words follow. Even the archaisms that could be considered the narrator’s defining tic are present in the invocation: “Nor mote my shell awake the weary nine” (I.1). Similarly, the lamentations that appear near the end of each canto seem clearly to be the utterances of no character or persona, but of Byron himself: “And thou, my friend!—since unavailing woe / Bursts from my heart, and mingles with the strain— / [...]What hadst thou done to sink so peacefully to rest?”; “All thou coulds’t have of mine, stern Death! thou hast; / The parent, friend, and now the more than friend” (I.92; II.96). Only the latter of these, however, can be claimed for Byron with any certainty, appearing as it does after his suspension of the narrative in stanza 94 of the second canto – and even this is not so certain, for it is not at all clear which voice announces this suspension, or which voice readers should assume speaks the passage that follows that suspension. Throughout the poem, voices mingle and separate, step forward and recede, often with no certain indication of when circumstances have changed.

This commingling might become less troubling when one remembers that Byron’s contemporaries largely recognized no difference between author and narrator: reviews of Childe Harold consistently refer to “the author” where present-day critics would say “the narrator,” for example. Yet these same reviews make it plain that those readers who wrote for journals and quarterlies, at least, were troubled by a lack of uniformity in the narratorial voice. In particular, they did not like the way Byron unexpectedly slipped between what I am calling personae, which these reviewers read as tones or styles. The most common objection was that Byron did not sufficiently differentiate his utterances and ideas from those of Harold.

[...] from several [...] very striking passages in the poem, it will sufficiently appear (unless they are to be ascribed merely to the spirit of poetical fiction), that the poet himself is in some respects an unhappy man [...] He seems, in many respects, to be so nearly identified with his own “Childe Harold,” that it is not easy always to distinguish the reflections of the ideal from those of the real traveller.

Critical Review 569

Sometimes the Childe forgets (accidentally, we believe) the heartstruck melancholy of his temper, and deviates into a species of pleasantry which, to say the truth, appears to us very flippant and very unworthy of the person to whom it is attributed. At other times, the noble poet is himself made to give expression to opinions and feelings, which would have much better suited the wretched Harold.

Eclectic Review 632

Almost as frequent, and far more vociferous, were complaints over Byron’s interweaving of what reviewers saw as radically different tones. The Critical Review seemed to speak more in sorrow than in anger:

The general complexion of the work is serious, and even melancholy. The occasional bursts of humour are, therefore, unpleasant as breaking in too abruptly upon the general tone of the reader’s feelings. What mind can, without very disagreeable feelings, turn on a sudden from the ridiculous picture of the Convention [...] to the contemplation of the Childe Harold’s melancholy mood [I.24-8] [...] ?


but the Eclectic did not hide its outrage, demanding, “Can it be believed that the author of the passages [of ‘beauties’] we have quoted could write such stanzas as [those satirizing an English Sunday]? Can anything be more flippant [...] ?” (638). Finally, critics also objected to Byron’s insertion of “personal” matter into his text. “As no reader will probably open Childe Harold with the view of inquiring into the religious tenets of the author,” wrote George Ellis in the Quarterly Review, “we cannot but disapprove, in point of taste, these protracted meditations, as well as the disgusting objects by which some of them are suggested. We object to them, also, because they have the effect of producing some little traces of resemblance between the author and the hero of the piece” (198). The Critical objected to his condemnations of Lord Elgin, “private feelings” it felt should not be admitted into a public work. Jeffrey, writing in the Edinburgh Review, took Byron to task for airing his personal grievances against that journal in the forum of public poetry (476-7).

All of these comments suggest that contemporary readers were disturbed by Byron’s frequently undifferentiated narrative voices. They may have equated author and narrator, but they clearly did not expect this author to bring his personal concerns into his poetry, or like it if he did. Equally so, they did not necessarily equate author / narrator and hero, and they found such an equation on the author’s part disquieting. If these objections seem to have been largely moral – and all of these remarks have, to one degree or another, a whiff of moral concern – the potential immorality had its root in a confusion that the critics acknowledged. These readers struggled with the uncertainty Byron created, and they feared its results: Byron could be confused with his gloomy hero; readers could be led to believe that it was acceptable to intermingle the comic and the serious; religious doubts could be connected with the noble author, and thus glamorized. Intermingling spelt confusion, and confusion spelt trouble.

If Byron seldom links his poetic speech to a particular poetic speaker, however, perhaps it is because when he does do so he causes even more confusion. Undoubtedly the poem’s single most difficult instance of speech attribution is the one moment that should be its clearest: the moment in I.27.315 when Byron, having offered several stanzas of rumination, simply announces, “So deem’d the Childe.” This would be a welcome clarification, were it not for the fact what Byron gives with one hand he takes away with the other. Told who deemed it, the reader must now attempt to figure out what he deemed. The declaration is preceded by 15 stanzas of unassigned meditation, which can (but not need not) be divided roughly into three sections: one on Portugal in general, one on Cintra in particular, and a two stanza entr’acte about William Beckford. Any one of these, or all of them together, could be Harold’s deemings. On the other hand, the stanza that directly precedes the assertion can be read as a self-contained commentary:

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 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 fingers points through many a coming year?


Here one acknowledges a certain fellow feeling with the Critical Review and the Eclectic Review. If the Childe makes these remarks, it is a surprise to discover how closely his tone resembles the ironic timbre of the Byronic persona. Yet if he does not make them, Byron’s announcement seems perverse indeed. William Galperin asserts that “the [speaker’s] attribution was plainly erroneous,” arguing that this is a moment in which the narrator impresses his “surmise regarding Harold’s surmise” upon the narrative (253). But this is not so plain. The reader cannot be certain that what precedes Byron’s assertion – or at the very least some of what precedes – is not “Harold’s surmise.” Nor can she be certain, however, that it is his surmise, or what portion of it is, or even precisely what Byron means by “so” in “So deem’d the Childe” (these thoughts? in this manner?). Just about all she can be certain of is that this moment serves not to soothe but to exacerbate, and that its seeming clarification is merely more obfuscation.

This sense of confusion is increased by the moments when Byron breaks his own literary frame. The first (and most delightful) of these is his sudden narratorial interjection at the beginning of the third stanza: “Childe Harold was he hight:—but whence his name / And lineage long, it suits me not to say.” This sudden appearance of a “me” in a description that had up until this moment seemed objective is disconcerting, and rendered more so by that the fact that this “me” is clearly running the poetic show, suppressing and revealing information about Harold at its whim. Such “me”s are not unknown in literature of the period (Jane Austen uses them, for example) but whenever they appear they are, as here, at least momentarily perplexing: the sudden rupture of fiction’s bubble startles. Moreover, this particular “me” has a personality so fully realized and so completely different from the voice that precedes it – the airily arrogant dismissiveness utterly at odds with the sonorous “Childe Harold was he hight” – that the rupture is particularly striking. The reader is abruptly reminded that the Harold for whom she has suspended her disbelief is, in fact, manufactured, her understanding of him at the very least provisional.[22] Frederick Garber comments that in these early stanzas Byron did what was “minimal but sufficient to get the poem going: he gave his hero a set of characteristics with which he could, for a while, meet the world [...] [He] set up the shape of a silhouette, no more than that but at least that much” (6). While this is perfectly true, what makes Garber’s comment particularly insightful is the fact that the reader does not realize Harold is a silhouette. He feels fully fleshed out. It is a measure of Byron’s skill that in the nine lines of stanza two he has managed to delineate his protagonist so thoroughly that Harold has become plausibly real, but it is a measure of his project that he has just as determinedly, and even more quickly, reminded readers of the precariousness of this reality. He does not destroy the created actuality of his fictional conceit with his back-and-forth, but he does disturb it. Harold becomes both real and unreal – the reader cannot be fully sure he is either.

This moment at the beginning of the canto is, fittingly, matched with one at its end. Turning from his sorrow-soaked and deeply personal stanzas on the death of Wingfield, Byron abruptly alters both tone and persona, firmly announcing himself as manipulator and making plain the fictionality of the hero and journey that have come before:

Here is one fytte of Harold’s pilgrimage:

Ye who of him may further seek to know,

Shall find some tidings in a future page,

If he that rhymeth now may scribble moe.


This sudden shift is quite a shock, and, like all shocks, unsettling. Byron yanks the cognitive rug out from under his readers in one swift gesture. In this case, the breach is not swiftly closed, for when he reintroduces Harold some 150 lines later he cannot quite grant him independent emotions and volition, but must acknowledge his own guiding hand. The curious mélange of fiction and reality that results mirrors the reader’s own confusion about Harold’s status:

But where is Harold? shall I then forget

To urge the gloomy wanderer o’er the wave?

Little reck’d he of all that men regret;

[...] Harold felt not as in other times,

And left without a sigh the land of war and crimes.


As in the early frame-breaking moment, the result is a paradoxical sense both that Harold is someone’s creation and, simultaneously, that he has independent existence, perhaps even outside the poem (“Harold felt not as in other times”). Byron announces his protagonist’s non-existence, then resurrects him; in the revivifying passage, his hero is both a fictional and real, moved by Byron “o’er the wave,” but fully capable of having “reck’d” on his own.

But the confusion is not limited to moments in which it announces itself. One finds it more subtly, for example, in the early descriptions of Harold. Here, Byron’s archly ironic, or sometimes openly contemptuous, descriptions of his hero – “Ah, me! in sooth he was a shameless wight, / Sore given to revel and ungodly glee”; “Childe Harold basked him in the noontide sun / Disporting there like any other fly” – alternate with others which are serious and even compassionate, as when he explains of Harold that “his was not that open, artless soul / That feels relief by bidding sorrow flow, / Nor sought he friend to counsel or condole,” or calls upon the reader’s empathy to excuse Harold’s decision to forego farewells: “Ye, who have known what ’tis to doat upon / A few dear objects will in sadness feel / Such partings break the heart they fondly hope to heal” (I.2; I.4; I.8; I.10). As a result of this mixture of persiflage and sympathy, the reader does not know quite what to make of Harold. She may view him ironically, or she may view him “straight”; she may condemn sternly his tawdry excesses, or she may gasp delightedly at them. All options are possible; none is endorsed.

Nor is this the only example of Byron’s leaving open doors of perception in his narrative. Throughout Childe Harold, he reminds readers that understanding may be more complex than they have been led to believe. Consider the narrator’s comment on Harold’s “name and lineage long”: “Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame, / And had been glorious in another day” (I.3). Byron embeds in his intimation its own retraction. The “perchance” is easy to miss, but it is there, and it draws back information even as it offers it. This construction – one might call it the “truth indirect” – allows for revelation and denial simultaneously, undermining what is spoken at the moment it is uttered. The reader understands from the verbal wink and nudge that Harold’s family is a noble one, but the subjunctive structure means that she must assume so. She cannot be certain. What she thinks she knows may here be just as easily be untrue as true: perchance, but perchance not.

This “perchance” is an early appearance in somewhat modified form of a rhetorical manoeuvre that pervades Harold I & II. The poem is full of assertions and representations advanced only to be immediately modified or partially retracted: “Oh! many a time, and oft, had Harold lov’d, / Or dream’d he lov’d, since Rapture is a dream”; “Come! blue-eyed maid of heaven! – but thou, alas, / Didst never yet one mortal song inspire—”; “’Tis night, when Meditation bids us feel / We once have lov’d, though love is at an end: / The heart... / Though friendless now will dream it had a friend” (I.82; II.1; II.23). Everywhere one finds the Byronic backtrack, sometimes folding in on itself, always undermining the notion of precise comprehension. On occasion this reaches almost fever pitch:

Childe Harold had a mother—not forgot,

Though parting from that mother he did shun;

A sister whom he lov’d, 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


“Though,” “but,” “if,” “yet”: the stanza fidgets and squirms, struggling to fit into the itchy jacket of accuracy. This correctio will become a hallmark of Byron’s works, refined to perfection in the Eastern Tales, but even these first appearances challenge the idea that one can ever be certain one can be certain.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is with Byron’s representations of Greece, that synecdoche for wisdom, that these confusions and retractions reach their height. Addressing the seemingly goal-less nature of Harold’s pilgrimage, Shilstone has asserted that “Greece clearly becomes the pilgrimage’s shrine, the last best hope for Harold’s redemption” (29). If so, it is a strange sort of shrine. Greece offers not reassurance but constant uncertainty, paradox and confusion piled upon each other. Nor are these uncertainties merely the visual ones discussed earlier. Greece consistently confounds understanding. It is “Immortal, though no more! though fallen, great!” Its citizens, reminded that “Who would be free themselves must strike the blow,” are then immediately informed, “But not for you will Freedom’s altars flame.” Contemplations of quondam glories like the battle of Marathon turn on a dime, leading back only to reminders of present degradation:

The flying Mede, his shaftless broken bow;

The fiery Greek, his red pursuing spear;

Mountains above, Earth’s, Ocean’s plain below;

Death in the front, Destruction in the rear!

Such was the scene—what now remaineth here?

What sacred trophy marks the hallow’d ground,

Recording Freedom’s smile and Asia’s tear?

The rifled urn, the violated mound,

The dust thy courser’s hoof, rude stranger, spurns around.


Greece’s former greatness is everywhere tinged with despair, a despair that gains poignancy only from invocations of former greatness.

Again, even the notes confound. Commenting on the stanza in which he urges Greece to “uncreate” its “long accustom’d bondage,” Byron writes, “The Greeks will never be independent; they will never be sovereigns as heretofore, and God forbid they ever should! but they may be subjects without being slaves. Our colonies are not independent, but they are free and industrious, and such may Greece be hereafter” (CPW 2: 201). In opposition to Byron the poet, Byron the editor advocates not an independent Greece but a colonial one. It is perhaps possible to understand the difference between “free” and “independent” in the note itself (although considering the methods of exacting “industriousness” employed in the sugar islands and other British colonies, one wonders exactly what Byron is promoting here), but it is more difficult to reconcile the stanza’s propagandist euphoria with the note’s flat denial of it. The Greece Byron offers his readers is simultaneously both deserving and undeserving, capable and incapable, but it is seldom just one or the other.

The site of Harold’s redemption, then, is equivocal. Or perhaps it would be better to call it a site of redemption by equivocality. For if Greece is always both either and or, this very ambivalence allows it to be a place of succor and relief. “He that is lonely hither let him roam, / And gaze complacent on congenial earth,” advises Byron (or the narrator, or the Byronic persona), offering Greece as the ideal destination for the “parted bosom” that “clings to wonted home.” The reader might pause to ask, He that is lonely, why not just go home? The answer is that for Byron Greece is the ideal home because it is both home and not home. It is “congenial earth” because it always cannot quite erase the reminder of its uncongeniality: “he whom Sadness sootheth may aide / And scarce regret the region of his birth” (I.92, my emphasis). Furthermore, as these lines show, Greece is equally paradoxical in its emotional effect, for “gazing o’er the plains where Greek and Persian died” (I.92), the viewer may find his sadness eased by solemn sorrow, just as his loneliness has been soothed by a reminder of how lonely he is. Greece can be only because it is not, and it can soothe only because it exacerbates. And it is here, within sight of, and within this site of, profound ambivalence that Harold, and the narrator, and perhaps even Byron, find their rest.

Perhaps the reader ought not to be surprised that Harold’s narrative proper ends on this note of pervasive doubt. After all, Byron announces his commitment to confusion from its very first stanza, that invocation to the Muse:

Oh, thou! in Hellas deem’d of heav’nly birth,

Muse! form’d or fabled at the minstrel’s will!

Since sham’d 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! sigh’d oe’r Delphi’s long-deserted shrine,

Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still


Here is the poem in little. There is a figure both formed by the poet and simultaneously possessing an independent existence (though “form’d [...] at the minstrel’s will,” she may still, he suggests, ignore his call); there, sly hints that compromise assumptions without fully endorsing or disproving them (“deem’d of heav’nly birth [...] thy vaunted rill”); there, an ancient site simultaneously great and debased (“Delphi’s long-deserted shrine”); and all of it sprinkled with enough retractions and revisions to confuse whatever certainty might remain: “or,” “yet,” “save that.” As the icing on the cake, Byron throws in a pun – are those “later lyres” or “later liars”? – to mirror the ironies to come.

Fittingly, the poem ends with a similar exercise in confusion, an exercise that also connects back to Byron’s original concern, the link between vision and knowledge. For Childe Harold ends by repudiating the ability of sight to grant revelation and comprehension. Its narrator asks:

Then must I plunge again into the crowd,

And follow all that Peace disdains to seek?

Where Revel calls, and Laughter, vainly loud,

False to the heart, distorts the hollow cheek?....

To feign the pleasure or conceal the pique,

Smiles form the channel of a future tear,

Or raise the writhing lip with ill-dissembled sneer


Appearances are “false to the heart” in both senses of the phrase. What seems to be a smile is merely a conduit for sorrow, and the immersion into society is unmasked not as a pleasure but as a continual grim masquerade. This commentary demonstrates to readers not the power but the weakness of both sight and knowledge: one may see, but one may not necessarily discern; what one knows may be only what one has been taught to believe.

But what of that sneer? It is “ill-dissembled,” but it is dissembled. It is dissembled, but it is “ill-dissembled.” Does Childe Harold at its end undercut its own undercutting? Can one be certain after all? Or is comprehension once again confused, taking a grimace for a smile? Byron does not resolve this uncertainty. Willing as he is to challenge, he is not quite ready to dismiss altogether the vision, and the knowledge, that his culture endorses. This reluctance is perhaps not surprising in what is, after all, his first mature poem. The Byron who writes the first two cantos of Harold is to some extent still only trying his wings, and while he turns his back on the nest he is not quite ready to leave it.

Yet Harold I & II occupy an important place in Byron’s canon, for in them he cracks open a door he will throw wide in the works that follow. These cantos mark the emergence of a Byron who resurfaces consistently in subsequent works: neither Byron the sentimentalist nor Byron the waspish satirist (although they too feature here, as they will in the future), but Byron the intellectual explorer. At the same time, the cantos are Byron’s first engagement with the subject that will preoccupy him for the remainder of his career, the construction and position of knowledge. In questioning the stability of knowledge in Childe Harold I & II, Byron begins a consideration that will end, some eight years later in Don Juan, in a complete repudiation of the possibility of knowing and an embrace of the empowering force of radical skepticism. In this way, the 1812 cantos are truly the Harold of Byron’s new age.