Romantic readings: Childe Harold, by Lord Byron

by Francesca Blanch Serrat

Lord Byron left England in April 1816 after he and his wife Annabella Milbanke had begun separation proceedings. The whole of English society had risen with a commotion over Byron’s alleged misconduct toward Lady Byron and his presumed incestuous relationship with his half-sister Augusta Leigh. Those who up to that moment had regarded the poet as an amusing, exotic, unapologetic character now rebuffed him. Byron, haunted by scandal and debt, and ostracized by his fellow Englishmen, sailed for Belgium. He was never to return home. Home was not home anymore. He had sold his estate, Newstead Abbey; his parents had passed away; only a few of his most loyal friends remained. In the years that followed, until his death in 1824, he would travel through Europe, from France to Italy and Greece. He masked his unrest by forming romantic acquaintances, creating political allegiances with liberal nationalistic movements and writing.

Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was published in its complete form in 1818, two years after the beginning of Lord Byron’s exile. However, the poet had started his composition as early as 1809, during his Grand Tour (1809-1811). The first two cantos were published in 1812, and with their release came Byron’s sudden rise to the status of celebrity: “I awoke one morning and found myself famous”. Canto III was published in 1816 and canto IV in 1817. Nevertheless, Byron’s disdain for English society and his life of debauchery did not change through the years. Byron maintained the same disregard for his native land from 1809 to 1817, so we cannot assume the composition of Childe Harold to be a reaction to the commotion there in 1816.

'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, by J.M.W. Turner, 1823

‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, by J.M.W. Turner, 1823, Tate, London

Behind the mask of the wanderer, now in the poetic persona of Childe Harold, Lord Byron expresses his detachment from English society and the life he has led in the past: “He felt the fulness of satiety: / Then loath’d he in his native land to dwell, / which seem’d to him more lone than Eremite’s sad cell” (Canto I 4:7-10), “And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart, / and from his fellow bacchanals would flee” (Canto I 6:1-2). He is satiated, tired of the pleasures he has experienced, which cannot satisfy him anymore. He loathes everything that surrounds him, especially England for representing everything he has grown tired of. Moreover, he feels alone and imprisoned, out of place: “Apart he stalk’d in joyless reverie, / and from his native land resolv’d to go, / and visit his scorching climes beyond the sea” (Canto I 6:5-7). Childe Harold, much like Byron, decides to leave land and explore new territories across the sea, where he hopes to regain his sense of wholeness and belonging. However, contrary to Byron’s own experience, leaving England is Childe Harold’s own and unconditional decision, inspired by the feeling of alienation that plagues him: “I stood / among them, but not of them” (III: CXIII). Our hero wanders sorrowful and tormented. It was the year 1809 and Byron had already defined the myth that was to survive him to become one of the most reproduced tropes in our culture: the Romantic hero. Through the Romantic hero that Childe Harold embodies, Byron will attempt to recover from the sufferings of exile. The healing will come from poetry itself, which allows him to detach himself from his situation by placing his struggle in Childe Harold’s hands. In other words, the poetic act allows Byron to explore his feelings from the viewpoint of the creator-poet.

Nevertheless, by writing Childe Harold, Byron does not simply yield to the muses—he is following an agenda. I do not think his intention was to be readmitted to English society, because, in my opinion, he would have never come back with less than the treatment of a national hero and the restitution of his properties and reputation; however, he writes seeking a pretext that will amend society’s rejection of his character. It is debatable whether or not he had actually “lost all local feeling for England,” as he wrote to Douglas Kinnaird in a letter from Ravenna in 1820. He might have thought of England with regret and even hatred, but it is undeniable that he did think of England.
The self’s attachment to one’s homeland is something an exile can never escape: “But my soul wanders; I demand it back” (IV:XXV). He has lost his sense of identity, and the farther he is from England, the stronger his need to attach himself to new nationalities, and the stronger his remembrance of England: “Nor is it harsh to make, nor hard to find / A country with – ay, or without mankind; / Yet was I born where men are proud to be, / Not without cause; and should I leave behind / The inviolate island of the sage and free, / And seek out a home by a remoter sea.” (IV: VIII). The third and fourth lines contrast with the references in the third canto to Childe Harold’s loathing towards Albion’s Isle. What Byron the recent graduate thought of Britain has nothing to do with what Byron the exile feels about it. In conclusion, there is no closure possible for him; he is as detached from Britain as from anywhere else. He is, in his own words, alone on Earth: “What is the worst of woes that wait on age? / What stamps the wrinkle deeper on the brow? / To view each lov’d one blotted from life’s page, / And be alone on Earth as I am now” (II: XCVIII).

In conclusion, Byron crafted Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage partly as a therapeutic strategy, seeking solace from the trauma of his exile. In the long poem we can divine the contradictions of Byron’s internal turmoil. Byron possibly did not feel himself at home in England, but leaving left him with grief over the native land, a grief that never abandoned him. No matter how far he went, how much his society changed, he would forever feel attached to Albion’s Isle. As he wrote in the aforementioned letter to Kinnaird: “I have quite lost all local feeling for England, without having acquired any local attachment for any other spot.” And that is the tragedy of the exile, living between worlds, never being able to call anywhere home.

Francesca Blanch Serrat is a Master’s student, recently graduated in
English Studies with a minor in Gender Studies from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. This post is a revised piece from her degree
dissertation on Lord Byron and Charlotte Smith’s Poetry in Exile. Her main interests are 18th-century women writers and English and French Romanticism. She is currently writing her MS thesis focusing on the construction of female Romantic heroism in Charlotte Dacre’s Zofloya.