Getting Engaged: The Third Canto of Byron’s Childe Harold

By the time Lord Byron came to compose the third canto of Childe Harold, he had begun to identify completely with his “self-imposed exile” image. He had disavowed his celebrity status in England (and on the Continent) and had become, largely through his own scandalous notoriety, disenchanted with the human race. Yet, the fact that he continued to compose prolifically demonstrates that his disengagement was far from complete. Creative writing is, among other things, a potentiality for human connection, engagement, socialization. The third canto of Childe Harold reveals Byron baring his rawest wounds, ostensibly in the hope that his audience will be able to appreciate his depth and candor. Simultaneously, Byron remains bitterly solitary, casting a 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 engagement to 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-completing existence of the written (and widely published) word was Byron able to do both. There were very few personages in then-contemporary society who Byron could identify with, who “pierced the depths of life” in the Romantic manner familiar to him. One who shared 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 preoccupation with nature and began an imaginary dialogue with, and discourse about, Napoleon. He looked at Napoleon’s life as into a mirror, which reflected “the shattered links of the world’s broken chain.” This is another gesture which could be taken as anti-social on Byron’s part— Napoleon was hardly a popular figure in Britain— yet again, Byron forces us to accept his gambit on its own terms. It is a perverse textual dare, to see if we can stomach Byron’s sympathy for the tyrant-scourge. Napoleon, “extreme in all things,” represented to Byron the principle of engagement taken to its absolute limits. Napoleon could 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 his relationship 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 complete self-sufficiency which Byron adopted as his ideal was not tenable for Napoleon. Byron found 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 this will. The eye which Byron casts on Napoleon’s character, life, and career is considerably more 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 but harrowing. 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 with relative ease. Furthermore, Napoleon is both figure and symbol, comprehensible to all yet decipherable to few. Byron’s unique situation makes his case study of Napoleon revelatory as 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 affective depression; his writing engages him on a worldly level, yet he still feels the need for selfjustification 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 or to let go, to play a part which 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 intense scrutiny, the most fervent attention. To write in the harsh glare of such scrutiny is not a wonted task for poets, yet Byron reached heights of cathartic lyricism which rise above social 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. Paradoxically, Byron’s engagement seemed to have more to do with his relationship with himself 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 to flow unimpeded. The best stanzas of this canto have an unpremeditated quality, as though

Byron were expressing himself perfectly and effortlessly for the firs time in his spontaneous overflow, and chiasmus with Napoleon. In these moments, Byron’s engagement is not to us, or to his text, but to his own passionate artistic development. Adam Fieled 2003-2013

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