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Getting Engaged: The Third Canto of Byron's "Childe Harold"

Getting Engaged: The Third Canto of Byron's "Childe Harold"

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Published by Adam Fieled
This piece was initially presented as a seminar paper at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. It has since been revised.
This piece was initially presented as a seminar paper at the University of Pennsylvania in 2003. It has since been revised.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: Adam Fieled on Aug 10, 2013
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09/10/2013

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Getting Engaged: The Third
Canto of Byron’s
Childe Harol
 
By the time Lord Byron came to compose the third canto of 
Childe Harold 
, hehad begun to identify completely with his
“self 
-
imposed exile”
image. He haddisavowed his celebrity status in England (and on the Continent) and had become, largelythrough his own scandalous notoriety, disenchanted with the human race. Yet, the factthat he continued to compose prolifically demonstrates that his disengagement was far from complete. Creative writing is, among other things, a potentiality for humanconnection, engagement, socialization. The third canto of 
Childe Harold 
reveals Byron baring his rawest wounds, ostensibly in the hope that his audience will be able toappreciate his depth and candor. Simultaneously, Byron remains bitterly solitary, castinga skeptical eye on human relationships and aspirations. This lends the third canto of 
Childe Harold 
a sense of sharp, irremediable conflict, as Byron wavers from engagementto disengagement and back again. Certain elements give Byron a temporary sense of 
“equipoise,”
most notably the beauty of the natural world and the redemptive purity of 
human solitude. Often, however, these potential fulcrums reinforce Byron’s sense of 
isolation, forcing him to confront the choice enumerated throughout this canto: engage or disengage, approach or withdraw. Only through the mediating, dialectic-completingexistence of the written (and widely published) word was Byron able to do both.There were very few personages in then-contemporary society who Byron couldidentify with, who
“pierced the depths of life” in the Romantic manner 
familiar to him.One who sh
ared Byron’s experience of triumph and tragedy
(albeit on a much grander scale, and from a less sensitive cognitive-affective mechanism) was the deposed tyrant
 
 Napoleon Bonaparte. When he visited Waterloo, Byron quickly forgot his preoccupationwith nature and began an imaginary dialogue with, and discourse about, Napoleon. Helooked
at Napoleon’s life as into a
mirror, which reflected
“the shattered links of theworld’s broken chain.”
This is another gesture which could be taken as anti-social on
Byron’s p
art
 — 
Napoleon was hardly a popular figure in Britain
 — 
yet again, Byronforces us to accept his gambit on its own terms. It is a perverse textual dare, to see if wecan stomach B
yron’s sympathy for the
tyrant-scourge
. Napoleon, “ex
treme in all things
,”
 represented to Byron the principle of engagement taken to its absolute limits. Napoleoncould only engage humanity by tyranny; thus, his political success was everything to him.All his desires and aspirations were focused on the socio-political sphere, on hisrelationship to masses of people. Conversely, even a tyrant is dependent on other  people
 — 
if men are not willing to fight and die for him, he is nothing. Thus, the completeself-sufficiency which Byron adopted as his ideal was not tenable for Napoleon. Byronfound
 Napoleon to be “more or less than a man,”
divining
 both the tyrant’s enormous
will-power and his complete dependence on society to facilitate the manifestation of thiswill. The eye which Byron casts
on Napoleon’s character,
life, and career is considerablymore compassionate than those cast by his contemporaries (Shelley and Wordsworth) probably because Byron (unlike Shelley and, to a large extent, Wordsworth) tasted the
intoxication of fame, the “pettiest passion,”
and found it ultimately not merely bitter butharrowing. Byron and Napoleon shared the post-Edenic
knowledge that “tempted Fate
will leave the loftiest star 
;” when “star” is defined in crass, worldly terms.Byron’s discursive meditation on Napoleon allows him to discuss himself 
 indirectly; he treads the thin line between engagement and disengagement withrelative ease. Furthermore, Napoleon is both figure and symbol, comprehensible to allyet decipherable to few
. Byron’s unique situation mak 
es his case study of Napoleonrevelatory a
s regards his own acquired stance before the world. He concludes, “’Tis
 
 but a worthless world to win or lose.” Herein lies the crux of Byron’s
affectivedepression; his writing engages him on a worldly level, yet he still feels the need for self- justification and wants not only understanding but vindication. Uncomfortably, the facet
of him which is convinced of human society’s
worthlessness scorns the self which would
condescend to engage. Byron can’t decide whether to hang on o
r to let go, to play a partwhich he deems beneath him or to flee the stage entirely.
His text “projects” for him.
The stage metaphor is apt for Byron. It was his destiny, his pride, and his bane to be a public personage, watched by masses of people. By the time this canto of 
Childe Harold 
 
was written, Byron was no longer “playing to the crowd”; he had turned
 inwards, and this text documents a preoccupation with his subjective self 
, Romanticism’s
commonplace. Yet, Byron knew that his writing would be the object of the most intensescrutiny, the most fervent attention. To write in the harsh glare of such scrutiny is not awonted task for poets, yet Byron reached heights of cathartic lyricism which rise abovesocial concern and paint a portrait of a complete, gifted, engaged human textual presence.In synthesis, it would seem that, as far as the third canto of 
Childe Harold 
is concerned,
Byron’s drive to engage
ascended over his persistent, hermetic impulse to disengage.Paradox
ically, Byron’s engagement seemed
to have more to do with his relationship withhimself than with his relationship to the public. Byron discovered a font of deep feeling
within his thoughts and “numbers
,
and created a poetic structure which allowed it toflow unimpeded. The best stanzas of this canto have an unpremeditated quality, as though

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