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Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is a long narrative poem in four parts written by Lord Byron. It was published between 1812 and 1818 and is dedicated to "Ianthe". The poem describes the travels and reflections of a world-weary young man who, disillusioned with a life of pleasure and revelry, looks for distraction in foreign lands. In a wider sense, it is an expression of the melancholy and disillusionment felt by a generation weary of the wars of the post-Revolutionary and Napoleonic eras. The title comes from the term childe, a medieval title for a young man who was a candidate for knighthood.

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage
Title Page of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, circa 1812.png
1st edition title page, published 1812
AuthorLord Byron
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenreNarrative poem, satire
Publication date
Pages555 pages
Preceded byChilde Harold's Pilgrimage 
Followed byMazeppa 

Frontispiece to a c. 1825 edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage:

Lo! where the Giant on the mountain stands,
His blood-red tresses deep'ning 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 a far,—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.


Charlotte Harley (1801–1880) as Ianthe, to whom Byron dedicated Childe Harold.

The poem contains elements thought to be autobiographical, as Byron generated some of the storyline from experience gained during his travels through Portugal, the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea between 1809 and 1811.[1] The "Ianthe" of the dedication was the term of endearment he used for Lady Charlotte Harley, about 11 years old when Childe Harold was first published. Charlotte Bacon, née Harley, was the second daughter of 5th Earl of Oxford and Lady Oxford, Jane Elizabeth Scott. Throughout the poem, Byron, in character of Childe Harold, regretted his wasted early youth, hence re-evaluating his life choices and re-designing himself through going on the pilgrimage, during which he lamented various historical events including the Iberian Peninsular War among others.

Despite Byron's initial hesitation at having the first two cantos of the poem published because he felt it revealed too much of himself,[2] it was published, at the urging of friends, by John Murray in 1812, and brought both the poem and its author to immediate and unexpected public attention. Byron later wrote, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous".[3] The first two cantos in John Murray's edition were illustrated by Richard Westall, well-known painter and illustrator who was then commissioned to paint portraits of Byron.

Published in March, 1812, the first run of 500 quarto copies sold out in three days.[4] There were ten editions of the work within three years. Byron deemed the work "my best" in 1817.

Byron chose for the epigraph for the 1812 edition title page a passage from Le Cosmopolite, ou, le Citoyen du Monde (1753), by Louis-Charles Fougeret de Monbron [fr], in the original French. Translated into English, the quote emphasizes how the travels have resulted in a greater appreciation of his own country:

The universe is a kind of book of which one has read only the first page when one has seen only one's own country. I have leafed through a large enough number, which I have found equally bad. This examination was not at all fruitless for me. I hated my country. All the impertinences of the different peoples among whom I have lived have reconciled me to her. If I had not drawn any other benefit from my travels than that, I would regret neither the expense nor the fatigue.[5]

Byronic heroEdit

The work provided the first example of the Byronic hero.[6] According to Peter Thorslev, the Byronic hero consists of many different characteristics.[7] The hero must have a rather high level of intelligence and perception as well as the ability to easily adapt to new situations and use cunning to his own gain. This hero is well-educated and by extension rather sophisticated in his style. Aside from the obvious charm and attractiveness that this automatically creates, he struggles with his integrity, being prone to mood swings. Generally, the hero has a disrespect for certain figures of authority, thus creating the image of the Byronic hero as an exile or an outcast. The hero also has a tendency to be arrogant and cynical, indulging in self-destructive behaviour which leads to the need to seduce men or women. Although the sexual magnetism created by his mysteriousness often assists the hero, it also gets him into trouble. Characters with the qualities of the Byronic hero have appeared in novels, films and plays ever since.


The poem has four cantos written in Spenserian stanzas, which consist of eight iambic pentameter lines followed by one alexandrine (a twelve syllable iambic line), and has rhyme pattern ABABBCBCC.



Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Joseph Mallord William Turner, 1823

Childe Harold became a vehicle for Byron's own beliefs and ideas, but in the preface to canto four Byron complains that his readers conflate him and Child Harold too much, so he will not speak of Harold as much in the final canto. According to Jerome McGann, by masking himself behind a literary artifice, Byron was able to express his view that "man's greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection which he cannot attain".[8]

Cultural referencesEdit

The poem's protagonist is referenced several times in description of the eponymous hero in Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin.

It is quoted towards the end of Asterix in Belgium and the 2000 film Britannic.

Hector Berlioz drew inspiration from this poem in the creation of his second symphony, a programmatic and arguably semi-autobiographical work called Harold en Italie.

In Anthony Trollope's third book of his Palliser novels, The Eustace Diamonds, Rev. Emilius reads the first half of the fourth canto to Lizzie Eustace.

C. S. Lewis, in The Screwtape Letters, uses Childe Harold as an example of a soul who would have been damned by his "self-pity for imaginary distresses."

Childe Harold, "Whatever that might mean", is carried to sea by Horatio Hornblower in C. S. Forester's The Commodore. Hornblower described the poem as “bombast and fustian.”

Herman Melville in Moby-Dick warns the ship-owners of Nantucket of enlisting "sunken-eyed Platonists" to man the mast-head lest these dreamy youth "tow you ten wakes around the world, and never make you one pint of sperm richer." And goes on to refer to Byron's poem, "Childe Harold not unfrequently perches himself upon the mast-head of some luckless disappointed whale-ship, and in moody phrase ejaculates:– 'Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean, roll! Ten thousand blubber-hunters sweep over thee in vain.' "

Stanza 76 along with the quote from Stanza 74 from Canto II was used by W. E. B. DuBois as the epigraph for Chapter 3 of The Souls of Black Folk.

The poem is cited as an inspiration for Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole's landmark series of paintings “The Course of Empire.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Heffernan, James AW, Cultivating Picturacy, Baylor UP, p. 163.
  2. ^ MacCarthy, Fiona (2002), Byron: Life and Legend, John Murray, p. 139, ISBN 0-7195-5621-X.
  3. ^ Spengler-Axiopoulos, Barbara (1 July 2006), Der skeptische Kosmopolit (in German), NZZ, archived from the original on 18 March 2012.
  4. ^ Chalk, Aidan. "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage: a Romaunt and the Influence of Local Attachment", Texas Studies in Literature and Language, Vol. 40, No. 1, Local Habitations (Spring 1998), pp. 48–77.
  5. ^ Lord Byron. Selected Poems. London: Penguin Books, 1996.
  6. ^ cf. ¶ 3 in the article on the topic from the Norton Anthology of English Literature
  7. ^ Thorslev, Peter. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962.
  8. ^ McGann, ed, Byron: The Complete Poetical Works, ed. with Introduction, Apparatus, and Commentaries. 7 Vols. Clarendon Press, The Oxford English Texts series, 1980–1993

External linksEdit

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