Poet/Reader Intimacy in Lord Byron’s ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’

In Byron’s poem, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the first two cantos of which were published in 1812, Byron does something very similar to his teasing in Lara, A Tale, tactfully using language to coax his reader into complicity with actions considered immoral and deviant in the time that the poem was written. In canto I, Childe Harold visits Seville the night before ‘Conquest’s firey foot intrude[ed], / Blackening her lovely domes with traces rude’. Byron writes of the people of Seville’s final night:

‘The feast, the song, the revel here abounds;

Strange modes of merriment the hours consume […]

Here folly still his votaries enthrals;

And young-eyed Lewdness walks her midnight rounds:

Girt with the silent crimes of Capitals,

Still to the last kind Vice clings to the tott’ring walls.’

The poet notes the feasts, songs and revel, the conventional ‘modes of merriment’, that fill the night, but he also suggests that something “other” than conventional and harmless celebrations take place: ‘strange modes of merriment the hours consume’. The phrase is vague, and it is this vagueness, this refusal to specify just what these ‘strange modes of merriment’ are, that creates space for the reader to imagine what these modes might be, to think of deviancy, acts of immorality. In her work on Byron’s poetry, Corin Throsby suggests that Byron ‘flirted with his reader through a process of disclosure and veiling or by revealing himself in his work and then denying that such an exposure occurred’, invoking Adam Phillip’s definition of ‘flirtation’ as ‘the (consciously or unconsciously) calculated production of uncertainty’ in her reading of Byron’s poetry. Although this essay’s focus is not on the presence of Byron within his own work as Throsby’s is, Phillip’s definition of flirtation that she applies is nonetheless useful. Byron produces uncertainty in his vague suggestion that something “other” than the conventional modes of celebration take place in Seville on the night that Childe Harold visits and in his refusal to disclose what, exactly, those strange modes may be. While this may not be considered “flirting” in Throsby’s sense — in the sense that Byron appears to his reader in his poetry, briefly, and swiftly escapes from their grasp — Byron’s use of language here undeniably creates a connection between the poet and his reader: as in the example from Lara previously discussed, the poet, in this stanza, shares in the reader’s dark, illicit thoughts, a profound intimacy created in language. Byron builds upon this connection as the stanza unfolds, creating a very subtle, gradual, increase of immoral behaviour and activity. First, Byron invokes Folly, who captivates; then Lewdness appears as a kind of prostitute, making her ‘midnight rounds’; then he writes of crimes committed by states; and finally, Vice, criminal activity, which Byron, typically, leaves unspecific, allowing this vice to be whatever the reader imagines it to be. Just as the acts of immorality, here, increase in intensity, Byron also increases the ambiguity that laces each line as the stanza moves to a close. We know that Folly ‘enthrals’ ‘his votaries’, but the image of Vice clinging to the ‘tott’ring walls’ is more vague; there is much more room for interpretation in this image. This increase is a very subtle one, one that could easily go undetected and so the reader, almost unwittingly, in reading this stanza ceases to be a reader alone and becomes an accomplice in vice. Once again, Byron leaves space for his reader to fantasise about immorality. Byron’s ‘refusal to exalt the individual word’ and ‘the production of uncertainty’ present in these lines creates an intimate relationship between the poet and the reader; Byron knows that he has coaxed his reader into thinking perverse thoughts and in this shared secret, a distinct intimacy is established and rooted.

Throsby’s work on the relationship between Byron and his reader, although focused on a slightly different aspect of his poetry than I am concerned with, is interesting and not without relevance in a discussion about language and poet-reader intimacy Byron’s poetry. In her article, ‘Flirting with Fame: Byron’s Anonymous Female Fans’, Throsby looks at anonymous letters of love and admiration that were sent to Lord Byron. Throsby quotes two lines of Byron’s poem The Corsair: ‘His heart was formed for softness – warp’d to wrong; / Betray’d too early, and beguiled too long’. She writes:

‘Byron’s correspondents address the quotation to him – “your heart” – as if [these lines] were about the author rather than the fictional Conrad, with one woman adding “I cannot help believing the truth of the following lines as applied to yourself ”’.

Throsby continues to suggest that the female reader of Byron’s poetry reads the poet into his own work and that the appeal of Byron within these particular lines is that he is ‘warp’d’ and ‘betray’d’ but has the potential to be reformed, for his heart was ‘formed for softness’; he has the potential for softness and so the reader of his poetry, who feels to understand Byron’s heart, has the potential to ‘cast the cypress from thy brow’. Byron achieves a similar effect in canto II of Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, when he writes:

‘Sweet Florence! could another ever share

This wayward, loveless heart, it would be thine:

But check’d by every tie, I may not dare

To cast a worthless offering at thy shrine,

Nor ask so dear a breast to feel one pang for mine.’

In these lines, Byron suggests that the speaker, whether the reader deems it to be Byron himself or Childe Harold, is possessed by ‘Sweet Florence’; his ‘wayward, loveless heart’ belongs to her, but he deems himself unworthy of her love. The speaker is captivated by ‘Sweet Florence’, she “has” him in these lines, but letters sent to Byron reveal that, here, it is Byron who captivates. In a letter sent to the poet, Lady Falkland, the widow of one of Byron’s friends, wrote that she was ‘certain’ ‘it was myself you meant in the Romaunt […] your saying that you were withheld by every tie from offering your hand and heart’. It has been suggested that Byron’s lines were actually written about Constance Spencer Smith, but Lady Falkland’s suspicion that the stanza was written about her instead, reveals that it is the reader, rather than Byron, that is seduced, possessed, in these lines. Just as in Throsby’s example from The Corsair, Byron once again, in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, presents his speaker as being somewhat aggrieved, yet entirely capable of feeling love, for despite Byron’s description of a ‘wayward, loveless’ heart, the speaker, who ‘may not dare / To […] ask so dear a breast to feel one pang for mine’ does not appear to be loveless at all, rather, he seems to be “in” love. In this unusual space between the speaker’s avowal of his hopelessness, and the potential for reformation that Byron allows the reader to read into these lines, there is room for the female reader of Byron’s work to imagine herself as a reformer, someone who can love, and be loved by, the ‘loveless’ Lord Byron. This relationship between Byron and his reader, although imagined, is created in a language that refuses to say anything for certain, that refuses to align that which is said, with that which is suggested. That a reader can read of Childe Harold’s journey to foreign lands and conclude from that same poem that they share a profound connection with the poet from the language that Byron uses alone, is testament to the poet’s effectiveness as a writer and his addition to the English language.

Lord Byron’s poetry, as T.S. Eliot contends, does not necessarily develop anything ‘in the meaning of individual words’; it is his declination to revere the word, in fact, that allows Byron to develop a language that creates spaces in which an intense intimacy between reader and poet can develop. In his ability to create such a connection within narrative poems, Byron, undoubtedly, ‘add[s] to the language’.

 

2 Comments

  1. Reading Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage for the first time. Your points about reading the poet into the poem and the Beauty and the Beast style “potential for redemption” are very well captured in these lines early on:

    “Oh! let that eye, which, wild as the gazelle’s,
    Now brightly bold or beautifully shy,
    Wins as it wanders, dazzles where it dwells,
    Glance o’er this page, nor to my verse deny
    That smile for which my breast might vainly sigh,….”

    The poem later refers to Childe Harold in the third person which is a bit of a slight of hand if I’m not misreading.

    Like

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