Elaine Ries (Second and Third Year Category)
Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III, Lines 100-126: The Cosmic Battle for the Soul
Stanzas twelve to fourteen of Canto III of Lord Byron’s poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage explore Harold’s experience of the cosmic conflict between the spiritual enlightenment of the heavens and the earthly domain of men. These three stanzas illustrate the alienation that an individual experiences when his or her spiritual soul is profoundly connected to the natural world, the interdependency of that companionship, and the threat the earthly world poses for such a relationship. Lord Byron uses metaphor, anaphora, personification, and the imagery of clay to bring this celestial conflict to life in the reader’s mind.
The twelfth stanza of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage outlines Harold’s relationship with the rest of mankind. He recognizes himself to be “most unfit” to commune with other men because he has “little in common” with them (100, 103). In this stanza Lord Byron uses a political metaphor to illustrate that Harold’s disconnect from his fellow man results in a battle for his thoughts. Lines 105-106 outline Harold’s stubborn resolve to “not yield dominion of his mind / To spirits against whom his own rebell’d”. Lord Byron’s use of “dominion” identifies Harold’s mind as a land under rule; simultaneously, the word indicates that Harold possesses the right to reign over his own thoughts (“dominion, n.”). His refusal to “yield” his prerogative to govern his mind suggests that he experiences external pressure to surrender his own opinions in favour of the thoughts of others (105). This echoes the previous assertation that part of Harold’s alienation from other men stems from the fact that he grew up “untaught to submit / His thoughts to others” (102-103). Ultimately, the political metaphor used in this stanza reveals that Harold has no interest in conforming to popular opinion, illustrating Harold’s non-earthly priorities and the significance he places on individualistic thought. It is this fundamental aversion to worldly knowledge that readies Harold’s soul to receive heavenly wisdom.
In juxtaposition with Harold’s disconnect from people, stanza thirteen shows his intimate connection with nature. In the first three lines Lord Byron uses anaphora to depict the expansiveness of this relationship. The repetition of “where” at the beginning of these lines demonstrates Harold’s connection to many kinds of nature; furthermore, the sound of the word itself illustrates the natural biomes described. Speaking the word aloud, the reader’s intonation initially rises like “the mountains”, then falls, mimicking the “roll” of the “ocean” waves (109, 110). The breathy quality of the word also paints in the reader’s mind the loftiness of the “blue sky” (111). In this way Lord Byron’s use of anaphora vocally creates a vivid image of the nature that Harold loves, conveying to the reader the sublime beauty that he sees in the natural world.
The personification of nature in lines 114 to 117 also speaks to the relational aspect of Harold’s connection to nature. The speaker of the poem portrays Nature as a conscious being with the ability to communicate with Harold in “a mutual language” (115). This characteristic reveals that Harold’s relationship with Nature is symbiotic; just as Harold speaks to Nature, Nature speaks to him. Nature is also portrayed as a being that possesses intellect. Harold proclaims his preference to “forsake” his own “land’s tongue” in favour of reading “Nature’s pages glass’d by sunbeams on the lake” (116, 117). This identifies Nature as more than a being that can be communicated with; it is also one that can teach. Nature’s active role in its relationship with Harold, combined with the knowledge that it imparts, depicts Nature as a wise, sentient being. This personification indicates a fundamentally interdependent relationship between Harold and Nature, which nourishes Harold’s spiritual soul.
Stanza fourteen of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage begins by relating Harold’s fondness for meditating on the night sky (118, 119). In the final lines of this stanza Lord Byron uses the imagery of clay to describe Harold’s tendency to forget the earthly quality of humanity that seeks to sever him from the enlightenment of “heaven” (126). Here Lord Byron defines “clay” as “earth as the material of the human body . . . as distinguished from the soul” (“clay, n.”). Using this definition, the poem’s speaker prophesies that “this clay”, this worldly element of Harold’s soul, will sink” the “immortal spark” of his spirit (123, 124). This imagery conveys the speaker’s acknowledgement that, although Harold’s efforts to spiritually commune with Nature are admirable, his worldly surroundings will eventually extinguish that enlightened spark.
Stanzas twelve to fourteen of Canto III of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage consider the cosmic extent of what is at stake for Harold as he navigates earthly thoughts and spiritual enlightenment. To convey the enormity of this conflict, Lord Byron uses a political metaphor to illustrate the ongoing battle for Harold’s mind between the world and Nature. The metaphor also reveals Harold’s firm hold on his independence. Additionally, his aversion to worldly knowledge readies his soul to receive cosmic enlightenment. The anaphora and personification in stanza thirteen vividly depict the intimate, interdependent relationship that exists between Harold and Nature; this companionship nurtures Harold’s soul and shows his steadfast commitment to forsaking earthly wisdom for heavenly enlightenment. In the final stanza of this section, Lord Byron uses the imagery of clay, the worldly aspect of a person’s being, to foreshadow that the pull of the earthly world will ultimately overcome Harold’s life-giving connection to Nature.
“clay, n.” OED Online, Oxford UP, March 2022.
“dominion, n.” OED Online, Oxford UP, March 2022.
McGann, Jerome J., editor. Byron: The Complete Poetical Works. Vol. 2, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Clarendon Press, 1980.
“quell, v.1” OED Online, Oxford UP, March 2022.
“spirit, n.” OED Online, Oxford UP, March 2022.