Friday, January 08, 2010

from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage by Lord Byron

All this month, I've been posting entries for an event I'm calling A Winter's Persuasion, a month-long study of the chapters of Jane Austen's last completed novel, Persuasion. Many consider it the most Romantic of her works, and certainly her references to Romantic poets such as Byron (both explicit and implicit) are part and parcel of why that is so.

Today, a stanza from Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, the fourth canto (a canto being rather like a chapter, if by chapter one means "a whole lot of stanzas"). I have posted excerpts from Childe Harold twice before: stanzas 137 and 138 back in 2007, and one of my favorites, stanza 178 back in 2006. Actually, I'm going to go ahead and re-post stanza 178, not only because I love it so, but also because it is the lead-in to stanza 179, which is referenced by Austen in chapter 12 of Persuasion. (And yes, I'm getting well ahead of where we are in the novel, since today we shall be covering Chapter Five, but that is of no real matter.)

In Persuasion, Chapter Twelve, Anne is walking near the sea with a sea captain who, it has been established, is quite well-versed in "modern" poets such as Byron and Scott.

Anne found Captain Benwick again drawing near her. Lord Byron's "dark blue seas" could not fail of being brought forward by their present view, and she gladly gave him all her attention as long as attention was possible. It was soon drawn per force another way.

The "dark blue seas" to which Austen refers can be found in the first line of Canto 179, which begins "Roll on, thou deep and dark blue ocean — roll!" Austen's contemporary audience would likely have been familiar with the verses she references, and would have appreciated that she is referring not only to a quite recent work by Byron and a stanza that references the sea, but that she is putting the words in the mouth of a sea captain who is in mourning and regrets that he was at sea when someone close to him died, and that the remainder of the stanza remarks on the vanity of men in setting their fleets on the ocean and on the sort of death that sailors like himself were constantly braving.

There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep Sea, and music in its roar;
I love not Man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne'er express, yet cannot all conceal.

Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean — roll!
Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;
Man marks the earth with ruin — his control
Stops with the shore; — upon the watery plain
The wrecks are all thy deed, nor doth remain
A shadow of man's ravage, save his own,
When, for a moment, like a drop of rain,
He sinks into thy depths with bubbling groan,
Without a grave, unknelled, uncoffined, and unknown.

Canto IV of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage marks Byron's shift from mere Romanticism to what some call "high romance". Note how he praises nature and condemns man's intrusion - by which he means society, of course, because Childe Harold is the poem wherein Byron creates what is known today as the Byronic hero: a sexy, dark & twisty sort of man who is a bit of an outcast, prone to mood swings, possibly narcissistic and/or self-loathing, with a disdain of society and/or its norms, a strong cynical and arrogant streak, but with a good heart. Rather the way Caroline Lamb once described Byron: "mad, bad, and dangerous to know." Other Byronic heroes of whom you might be fond include Han Solo, the vampire Lestat, Mr. Rochester, and Batman.

The form. You may already have noticed that Byron was using a repeated meter and rhyme scheme here. The form of stanza he's using is Spenserian stanza, which was used by Edmund Spenser in his magnum opus, The Faerie Queen. Each of the stanzas has nine lines. The rhyme scheme of each stanza is ABABBCBCC, with the first eight lines being in iambic pentameter (five iambic feet per line: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). The last line of each stanza is what is known as an "alexandrine", being a line in iambic hexameter (six iambic feet per line). The extra foot in an alexandrine has the slowing or swinging effect of dragging a train around a corner (you are free to picture the train of a dress or a railroad train) - the point being that there's a little extra effort to be made on that last line, which alters the pace of the poem as a whole (if you are reading more than one stanza of the poem). Back in Byron's time, it was quite common for people to read out an entire Canto in an evening, since reading was often done aloud, and this poem, like so very many others, is designed for that purpose.

Similarity to Sir Walter Scott?
I cannot help but notice (and I'm certain Austen noticed as well) the similarity between the last line of stanza 179 ("unknelled, uncoffined and unknown") and a line written by Sir Walter Scott's in the narrative poem he published seven years earlier than Byron's Childe Harold, The Lay of the Last Minstrel, which speaks of a man dying "unwept, unhonored, and unsung". That portion of The Lay (written in rhymed couplets using iambic tetrameter) is usually excerpted as "Breathes There the Man With Soul So Dead", which is generally perceived as a poem about patriotism:

Breathes there the man with soul so dead
Who never to himself hath said,
This is my own, my native land!
Whose heart hath ne’er within him burned,
As home his footsteps he hath turned
From wandering on a foreign strand!
If such there breathe, go, mark him well;
For him no minstrel raptures swell;
High though his titles, proud his name,
Boundless his wealth as wish can claim
Despite those titles, power, and pelf,
The wretch, concentred all in self,
Living, shall forfeit fair renown,
And, doubly dying, shall go down
To the vile dust from whence he sprung,
Unwept, unhonored, and unsung.

I rather suspect that the similarity was intentional on Byron's part, and that he was engaging in the time-honored tradition of engaging in a dialogue of sorts with another poet through his own work. The similarity of the lines, coupled with the placement of the similar evocative (and memorable) terms speaks of intention, but Byron has specifically replaced Scott's dust with water. Scott has claimed that if there's a man who doesn't take pride in his homeland, then he dies a double death and deserves to die unmarked and unmourned. Thus, where Scott believes man ought to claim dominion, ownership or at least sense of pride in "[his] own, [his] native land", Byron makes clear that while man might exercise some sort of dominion over land, he ruins it as he does so, and then goes further to say that man holds no power whatsoever over the sea, and that his efforts to establish dominion through an exertion of power at sea is fruitless: thus his man is reduced to insignificance: a mere drop of rain in the ocean.

Kiva - loans that change lives

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. You may be amused to hear the chain that led me to discover it.

I had known of Sir Walter Scott's Lay of the Last Minstrel for some time, as I'm a fan of the movie Groundhog Day (you probably know the reference, but it's a scene in the cafe where Andie MacDowell, disgusted with Bill Murray's character Phil Conners, quotes from the poem; see

So, a few days ago, I happened across an article entitled "The horrifying physiological and psychological consequences of being Aquaman" (see, which quotes from Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. I read the quote, which ends with "Without a grave, unknell'd, uncoffin'd, and unknown" and immediately thought of Lay of the Last Minstrel. ("Bing!", as a character from Groundhog Day might say.)

I thought the similarity was entirely too much to be coincidence, so I searched the Internet to find out when each piece was written and stumbled across your post, and your explanation, which I found cogent.

Thanks again.