Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:00 Background & Format
  • 0:59 Canto One
  • 3:04 Canto Two
  • 5:10 Analysis
  • 5:39 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Debbie Notari
Lord Byron was one the most famous Romantic poets of his time, if not the most talented. His poem 'Child Harold's Pilgrimage' gained him the respect of the literary community of that day. In this lesson, we will analyze what made this poem so popular.

Background and Format

Lord Byron was certainly one of the most radical thinkers of the 1800s in Great Britain, and this thinking was accompanied by a wild lifestyle. The word 'unrestrained' comes to mind when we think of his personal choices, and even his literary style. 'Childe Harold's Pilgrimage' is a lengthy poem of four cantos, or sections, that Lord Byron began after he traveled to Portugal and other European countries during a particularly trying period of his life. Things had not gone the way he planned or wanted, and he needed a break.

The poem seems to be autobiographical, and after publishing the first two cantos, Byron instantly became a literary celebrity. He did not finish the final two cantos until later in life. We'll take a look at these first two cantos and highlight certain parts. The poem flows easily, and you might want to spend some time reading it in its entirety at a later date.

Canto One

In the first canto, Byron tells us a bit about Childe Harold, and it could be argued that Byron himself is Childe Harold. Although Byron spends the first stanzas telling us about Childe Harold, it is really the author's own journeys that comprise the primary focus of the first canto.

Byron then describes Portugal. The British held a certain prejudice against Portugal during this time, rather favoring the Spanish, so Byron's picturesque words presented the land in a more favorable light. He used such phrases as:

'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!'

However, of the Portuguese people, Byron holds a more critical opinion as he notes this contrast of squalor and poverty with the beauty of the country, itself. It can be said that Lord Byron, with his background of nobility and wealth, found Portugal to be appallingly poor at this time. We don't see compassion, but rather criticism in his words when he writes things like:

'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, unwash'd, unhurt.'

Clearly, Byron was not in Britain anymore! In stanzas 24-26, we see Byron's darker Romantic bent as he describes a monastery:

'Yet deem not these Devotion's offering -
These are memorials frail of murderous wrath:
For wheresoe'er the shrieking victim hath
Pour'd forth his blood beneath the assassin's knife.'

Byron continues on to describe more of the land, its people, and its history before focusing on Spain. We can see why this would have been interesting to readers on merely a historical or traveler's level, but Byron adds his poetic touch, and it is magical.

Canto Two

Canto two brings Byron to Greece, where he begins by mourning the loss of Greece's glory days as he observes the ruins in Athens. He says:

'Look on this spot - a nation's sepulchre!
Abode of gods, whose shrines no longer burn.'

As he sits on the ruins, he thinks of the Greek gods of old. He notes the contrast of this diminished land that used to rule the world with Great Britain. Byron is elegiac in mourning Greece, when he says:

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