Wednesday, January 29, 2003

He felt the fulness of satiety:

Then loath’d he in his native land to dwell

--Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto I, Stanza 4

And conscious Reason whisper’d to despise

His early youth, misspent in maddest whim;

But as he gaz’d on truth his aching eyes grew dim.

-- Canto I, Stanza 27

Reading Childe Harold is a little like reading The Waste Land, and not just because there are so many footnotes, so much news of the day; in Byron’s case, the news of the geopolitical situation of the early 19th Century. Both poems seem to me animated by a cultural discontent; Childe Harold flees Albion and rides through Europe on an adventure of personal discovery and sees little more than anguish, defeat, squalor; he closes observes all that is beautiful and exotic and violent, but it excites and depresses him at the same time. To look on anything in its depth is to look on horror. “Consciousness awaking to her woes.” The glory of the past, piled up in shards of defeat, the debris of culture.

The topographical becomes the psychological – the voyage out becomes the voyage in.

Thus bending o'er the vessel's laving side,

To gaze on Dian's wave-reflected sphere,

The soul forgets her schemes of Hope and Pride,

And flies unconscious o'er each backward year.

None are so desolate but something dear,

Dearer than self, possesses or possess'd

A thought, and claims the homage of a tear;

A flashing pang! of which the weary breast

Would still, albeit in vain, the heavy heart divest.

--Canto II, Stanza 24

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