The content of the poem “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage” - Lord George Gordon Byron

Essays on literary works - 2023

The content of the poem “Childe Harold's Pilgrimage”
Lord George Gordon Byron

In Spain, Harold is no longer the frustrated society dandy he is shown at the beginning of the poem. The great drama of the Spanish people awakened his soul, made him fall in love with the heroes of the people's war, helped him to see the inhumanity and criminality of Napoleon's military adventures, showed him in a new light the politics of those very English lords who had previously been for him just characters in the comedy of London salon life. Here, in Portugal and Spain, Lord Wellington, a favorite of London ladies and dandies, appeared before Harold as a cynical politician, cold-bloodedly sacrificing thousands of human lives to please his patrons - the leaders of the Torian oligarchy. The sinister role of English politics begins to be outlined in the poem in all its repulsive duplicity and hypocrisy.

The first song, filled with distant peals of artillery fire and bathed in the sun of Spain, captivating with the images of the heroes of the Spanish revolutionary war, ends anxiously. New clouds are gathering over Spain: its fields, through which Harold rode in the summer, will soon again become places of fierce fighting. Napoleon, having defeated the Austrian army in the battle of Wagram (1809), was gathering troops for a new campaign against unconquered Spain. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers, mighty artillery parks were already stretching from the Danube, where the carnage was still smoking, to the borders of Spain.

The first canto of the poem was completed in the winter of 1809-1810. The poet was traveling in Albania when Napoleon's armies, having crossed the Sierra Morena with fierce battles, captured almost all of Spain and again occupied Portugal. But Byron's fiery verses urged to believe in the resistance forces of the Spanish people, sounded like a password of hatred for the military despotism of Bonaparte, an anthem in honor of the national liberation war of the peoples of Europe against his hordes.

The power of poetic foresight, inherent in truly great works of art, lives to this day in these stanzas of the first song, calls to believe in a happy future for the Spanish people.

The second canto, which began with an address to the goddess Wisdom, moves freely to Byron's characteristic description of the sea through which Harold's ship glides. A singer of the sea, Byron possessed a remarkable wealth of epithets and comparisons for depicting him in different weather, at different times of the day and night.

The picture of the sun-drenched sea, the description of a dapper ship on which its measured marine life goes on, calm the reader, for a while make him forget about the tragic and disturbing notes on which the first song of the poem broke off. The reader, together with Harold, reflects on the Spanish impressions on the ship: they are not erased, on the contrary, they will only gain a foothold in these days of forced rest.

With the experience gained in Spain - with the experience of a man who has learned to see the need, grief and heroism of the people - Harold lands on the shores of Albania. The poet constantly reminds of the harsh fate of Albania. She languishes under the Turkish yoke, forcibly Turkishized. In its distant past, the name of Skanderbeg still burns - Byron recalls him as a glorious echo of the independence of Albania. It is bitter for the poet to see that this beautiful country, these proud, noble, courageous people are forced to endure the despotic regime of the Ottoman Empire, to obey the Sultan's viceroy, the Albanian feudal lord Ali Pasha, who actually ruled the country as an autocratic medieval despot.

As in the first song, the poet sends his hero into the midst of the people, makes him study life and customs with lively curiosity, listen to folk songs. In the strong and simple feelings of the Albanians, in their directness and courage, Harold sees the guarantee of a glorious and free future that will still come for this country - Byron believed that the tyranny of Ali Pasha would come to an end. In the first song, against the background of Spanish nature, a simple Spaniard-peasant, a mule driver, a partisan performed; in the second song, against the backdrop of the mountain landscapes of Albania, in the description of which the romantic coloring of Byron's poem is strongly affected, an Albanian highlander is shown.

Harold descends from the mountains of Albania. The horse takes him across the fields of immortal Hellenic glory, past the ruins of once great cities, past the ruins of temples. However, the theme of the past glory of Greece, the images of antiquity, which are included in the poem here instead of the living images of the Spanish peasants and Albanian highlanders, are by no means a departure from the modern theme. Byron appeals to antiquity only in order to set off the miserable situation of Greece, enslaved by Turkey, in order to ridicule the policy of those circles of Greek society that are trying to appease the Turkish invaders and trample on the glorious traditions of the Greek people.

The great past of the Greek people obliges them to win a decent and free life in a new society - such is the conclusion. Harold thinks about this, enriched by new impressions from his trips to Albania and Greece. Spain awakened the best sides of his soul, taught him to respect the people fighting for their freedom. Albanian and Greek impressions broaden his horizons still further, help him create an idea of the accumulating power of popular anger, of the still unresolved, but persistently rising tasks of the national liberation movement in Europe.

Harold, like Byron himself, guessed that one of the glorious battles for freedom must surely break out here - among the sacred stones of Greece, defiled by Turkish governors by uninvited intercessors from among English politicians like Lord El Jean.

In Portugal and Spain - Wellington, in Greece - Elgin; everywhere Harold stumbles upon such compatriots who inspire suspicion and hatred in other nations, drop and discredit the name of the Englishman.

This angers Harold: after all, he is also an Englishman, but unlike Wellington and El Jean, he is a friend of the peoples, whose guest he turns out to be, he follows their life with love and interest, admires their heroism. So, gradually, the theme of two Englands is outlined in the poem: that official England, which inspires more and more dislike both Byron and his hero, and another England, whose people languish, if not in slavery to foreigners, then in bondage to English manufacturers and landowners. “I visited the places of hostilities in Spain and Portugal, I visited the most oppressed provinces of Turkey,” Byron later said about this, speaking in the House of Lords, “but nowhere, even under the yoke of the most despotic, twisted power, I have not seen such a hopeless, so desperate need, which I discovered when I returned to my homeland. Experience gained in travels 1809 - 1811.

In the final stanzas of the second song, the theme of longing and disappointment reappears: Harold's home is waiting for the same hateful and alien life of secular society; he moved farther and farther away from her, but he could not break with her. “Why return, if you wander again - an orphan?” Byron asks and finds no answer. Harold will return to the "crowd" he hates.

Responsiveness, spiritual nobility of Harold do not fit with the role of a misanthrope, which Byron outlined for him. "Misdirected," in Byron's words, Harold's soul began to noticeably recover and refresh under the influence of everything that he saw and experienced in his wanderings. This contradiction, characteristic of Byron, was, on the one hand, reflected by the objective truth reflected by Byron the artist: it lies precisely in the depiction of a beneficial change taking place in Harold under the influence of historical events that he witnessed; and on the other hand, the biased point of view of the poet, who mistakenly believed that no one can change the character of his hero, free him from "the corruption of the mind and morality."

In the future, the objective, strong side of Byron's contradictions prevailed: he did not make his Harold Timon. In the third and fourth songs, Harold responds even more humanely and more vividly to the new great historical events that have thundered over Europe, and if he still languishes in an aristocratic environment that is more and more alien to him, then to his former coarse amusements, to orgies and revelry, he won't come back.

For all that, Byron's words about Harold are very important in order to emphasize the fundamental position: Harold, even in the first songs of the poem, where he is given more attention, should not be considered Byron's positive hero. The poet looks at him critically: Harold's life before his journey is a bad example; whether Harold was cured of his vices - the poet does not know, but suggests that if he was cured, it was only in order to become a misanthrope. Contrary to the opinion of Byron himself, many literary critics of his era and later saw Harold as Byron's positive hero.

As mentioned above, the second half of the poem, written five years after the first two songs, is marked by many new features that testify to the ideological and aesthetic development of the poet. The main conflict of both songs is outlined more sharply and directly: it is an irreconcilable contradiction between the enslaved peoples and the temporarily triumphant reaction. In the center of the third song is the Battle of Waterloo, the collapse of Napoleon's empire, and hence the victory of the feudal monarchies; they deftly used the upsurge in the national liberation war of the peoples of Europe against Napoleon in order to overthrow and finish him to the end, and then to attack those advanced social forces that dealt a mortal blow to Bonaparte's military despotism.

But the victory of reaction cannot delay the movement of history for a long time. Having gone through a difficult period of disappointment and doubt, Byron became convinced of this, and the fourth song of the poem became a hymn to the Italian liberation movement: creating this song, Byron believed in the imminent liberation of Italy. In the third and fourth songs, Byron speaks more and more directly about himself. However, at the beginning of the third song, he returns to his hero and mentions the changes that have taken place in him. Harold feels like a "captive falcon" among secular society, his aloofness has intensified, he is alone; the poet muffledly mentions some “new goals”, high ideals - Harold strove for them upon his return from the first trip, but these goals were not achieved, and Harold cools off towards them. Gradually, however, Harold is increasingly obscured by Byron himself. In the fourth song, Harold fades completely into the background. Byron displaces his hero by addressing the reader directly. The poet discards literary conventions, according to which, in fact, one should have come up with some kind of end for Harold.