Places: Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1812-1818

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Picaresque

Time of work: 1809-1818

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Spain

*Spain. Childe Harold’s PilgrimageIn canto 1, Childe Harold departs Albion, or England, and crosses the Bay of Biscay to Portugal and Spain, which has become the battleground for “Gaul’s,” or France’s, “unsparing lord” (Napoleon). Although Napoleon is dramatized as a conqueror justly condemned for his ruthlessness, he also represents a new force for freedom sweeping away Europe’s monarchies and rejuvenating its people. Harold himself is seeking precisely this kind of renewal. With Napoleon’s defeat “Britannia,” or England, “sickens,” Byron exclaims. He exhorts: “Awake, ye sons of Spain! awake! advance!” Spain is no longer the land of chivalry; it is ruled by a corrupt king, a “bloated Chief,” and will soon be a conquered province over which European nations will squabble. The ebbing strength and nobility of cities such as Seville and Cádiz are lamented as Harold makes his way through the “nerveless state.”


*Greece. In canto 2, Harold visits the famous site of the Parthenon, a temple devoted to Athena, the goddess of wisdom. However, like Spain, Greece has been robbed of its glory. British marauders have taken away parts of the ancient building and defaced a shrine. All Greece has become a “sad relic of departed worth.” Seeking inspiration in the places of Western greatness, Harold finds only degradation as he traces Alexander the Great’s path through Albania and other parts of the Balkans.


*Belgium. In canto 3, the “self-exiled” Harold visits the “grave of France, the deadly Waterloo,” where Napoleon suffered his final defeat. In the aftermath of that great event, many of Europe’s monarchies were reestablished. From this scene of defeat Harold turns toward Switzerland and the places where great writers, such as Edward Gibbon, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire, employed their “gigantic minds” to comprehend the tragedy of humanity. Indeed, Gibbon’s great work on the Roman Empire leads Byron to think of the degraded state of Italy, which provides yet another example of humanity’s fallen state and of Byron’s theme: “We are not what we have been . . . We are not what we should be.”


*Italy. Canto 4 begins in Venice, a magical city of great beauty, which seems to rise out of the water and yet is a site of disintegration with its palaces “crumbling to the shore.” Its great buildings, St. Mark’s Cathedral, for example, call to mind Venice’s history as an independent city-state, but now its freedom and glory are gone.

Certainly Italy remains a source of inspiration as Byron thinks of great writers such as Dante, who was associated with Florence, the Italian version of Athens. Italy is where Vergil wrote his poetry, but here also an empire was born and decayed, a fact that brings to mind Napoleon and France once again. France has “got drunk with blood to vomit crime,” but Rome is the very “field of freedom, faction, fame, and blood.” Nowhere is the scene of human achievement and defeat better seen than in Harold’s visit to the Roman Colosseum, which is an architectural wonder and a place of torture, where gladiators fought for sport.

Indeed Byron’s description of Rome’s Colosseum coalesces the poem’s sense of the importance of place: “While stands the Colosseum, Rome shall stand;/ When falls the Colosseum, Rome shall fall.” Each place Harold visits is an emblem of the human desire for permanence and achievement, yet each place is in ruins, an emblem of human defeat. That ruins and some historic structures such as the Roman Pantheon and St. Peter’s church and dome still stand evokes in Byron the hope that human greatness can be revived. Viewing St. Peter’s, Byron comments that “growing with its growth, we thus dilate/ Our spirits to the size of that they contemplate.”

The pilgrim’s final resting place is the ocean, Byron emphasizes, which evokes the immensity of the world out of which man struggles to create and endure. Nature itself becomes the titanic force against which all human created places must be measured.

BibliographyByron, George Gordon, Lord. Works. Edited by Ernest Hartley Coleridge. 13 vols. New York: Octagon Books, 1966. Originally published between 1898 and 1904 in thirteen volumes, this is a complete collection of all Byron’s poetry and prose, along with extensive introductions and notes, both by the editor and by Byron himself. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage appears in volume 2.Crane, David. The Kindness of Sisters. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. A study of Byron’s reputation after death, exploring bitter and conflicting accounts by the wife he divorced and the sister he seduced.Gleckner, Robert F. Byron and the Ruins of Paradise. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967. A critical discussion of Byron’s viewpoint, as seen through his poetry. Byron’s views of natural beauty and human failings are emphasized. Two chapters are dedicated to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, an excellent example of these feelings.Jump, John D., ed. Byron: A Symposium. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. A collection of essays on Byron and his poetical works, by various authors. “The Poet of Childe Harold,” by Francis Berry, emphasizes the stylistic devices of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and other works Byron wrote during the same period, in relation to the works of his contemporaries and of later writers.MacCarthy, Fiona. Byron: Life and Legend. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003. A biography that re-examines the life of the poet in the light of MacCarthy’s assertion that Byron was bisexual, a victim of early abuse by his nurse.Marchand, Leslie A. Byron’s Poetry: A Critical Introduction. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1965. A general introduction to Byron’s poetry, intended for twentieth century students and general readers. This book places Byron’s work in the context of the literary tradition he followed, the works of his contemporaries, and the historical times in which Byron lived.Thorslev, Peter L. The Byronic Hero: Types and Prototypes. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. A study of the alienated antihero common in Romantic poetry, essentially created by Byron, especially in Childe Harold. Emphasis is placed on the historical background of Byron’s times.
Categories: Places