Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: Beginning the Hermeneutic of Intimacy

  • Tom Mole
Part of the Palgrave Studies in the Enlightenment, Romanticism and Cultures of Print book series (PERCP)


I would begin at the beginning, if I knew where Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage began.1 But the poem begins at least three times. The prefatory poem ‘To Ianthe’ and the first two stanzas dramatise Byron’s attempt to figure out a relationship with his readers and to figure it into his writing. In the first two stanzas, written a year and eight months apart, Byron ironically employed two sets of opening conventions, each of which signalled a generic affiliation, identified a literary tradition and targeted a specific audience.2 When he added ‘To Ianthe’ in the seventh edition, he adopted a third set of conventions and rethought the poem’s opening once again. This chapter investigates how Byron configured and refigured the relationship between writer and reader at the beginning of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. In the process, the collaborative, encoded intimacy of a coterie was replaced by the constructed, hermeneutic intimacy between producer and consumer in industrial culture. Byron began adding to the poem’s opening in response to several painful bereavements, but his revisions helped to construct the hermeneutic paradigm that would govern his celebrity career.


Public Audience Romantic Period Literary Tradition Female Reader Oral Conception 
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  1. 2.
    The second stanza was part of the original draft, begun on 31 October 1809 (CPW, II, 266). The first stanza was added in late July 1811 (CPW, II, 267). ‘To Ianthe’ first appeared in the seventh edition (1814). For a full account of the poem’s manuscripts and composition, see CPW, II, 265–9. Facsimiles are available in David V. Erdman, ed., with the assistance of David Worrall, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage: A Critical, Composite Edition, Manuscripts of the Younger Romantics (New York and London: Garland, 1991).Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    David Hill Radcliffe observes that ‘Of the better-known eighteenth century poets, only Johnson and Goldsmith did not imitate or burlesque Spenser in verse.’ David Hill Radcliffe, Edmund Spenser: A Reception History (Columbia, SC: Camden House, 1996), p. 53.Google Scholar
  3. Richard Frushell discusses Johnson’s and Goldsmith’s reactions to Spenser. Richard Frushell, Edmund Spenser in the Early Eighteenth Century: Education, Imitation, and the Making of a Literary Model (Pittsburgh, PN: Duquesne University Press, 1999), esp. pp. 121–6, 139–43.Google Scholar
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    Greg Kucich also notes that ‘Byron was reading Vicesimus Knox’s Elegant Extracts, which includes numerous passages from The Faerie Queene and Spenser’s eighteenth century imitators, as he began work on Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.’ Greg Kucich, Keats, Shelley and Romantic Spenserianism (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991), p. 113.Google Scholar
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    Cf. Mark Storey’s comment that ‘Childe Harold announces itself as a curiosity, reaching for some of that medieval quaintness that had already served Coleridge well enough’. Mark Storey, Byron and the Eye of Appetite (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), p. 82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Before proceeding to an analysis of openings in realist novels, Victor Brombert briefly sketches the ‘gradual relegation of the muse to a secondary role, and ultimately […] her disappearance, until the epic beginning is itself thematized […] [B]eginning [thus] becomes’, for Byron, ‘an autonomous literary problem’ (p. 493). Victor Brombert, ‘Opening Signals in Narrative’, New Literary History, 11 (1980), 489–502.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 8.
    Edward W. Said, Beginnings: Intention and Method (London: Granta Books, 1998), p. 72.Google Scholar
  8. Said distinguishes ‘transitive’ beginnings from ‘intransitive’ origins. ‘Transitive beginnings’ are the inaugural moments of human projects: more or less constructed commencements. Origins, or ‘intransitive beginnings’, incessantly fold back upon themselves in search of an originary moment with nothing before it, a commencement ex nihilo which is ultimately not human but divine. See also A. D. Nuttall, Openings: Narrative Beginnings from the Epic to the Novel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992).Google Scholar
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    Theodore Redpath notes that ‘Childe Harold was […] a new kind of work, and a number of the critics were puzzled as to what kind of a thing it was.’ Theodore Redpath, The Young Romantics and Critical Opinion, 1807–1824 (London: Harrap, 1973), p. 180.Google Scholar
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    Cited in James Sambrook, James Thomson 1700–1748: A Life (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), pp. 263, 264.Google Scholar
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    Jerome McGann advanced this view in Fiery Dust, where he writes that ‘the theme of Cantos I–II is […] the painful education of the poet into a more sensitive and reliable subjective moral awareness’.Google Scholar
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    Lucy Newlyn, Reading, Writing and Romanticism: The Anxiety of Reception (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 24. Newlyn has drawn attention to the importance of ‘communal reading scenes’, especially for the first generation of Romantic poets (p. 17). She shows how coterie reading-circles were satirised as ‘a method of self-defence’ and identifies them as part of ‘the persistence of anachronistic systems of reception’ (pp. 23, 24).Google Scholar
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    Charles Skinner Matthews to Byron, 30 June 1809. Cited in Louis Crompton, Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in Nineteenth-Century England (Swaffham: The Gay Men’s Press, 1985), pp. 128–9.Google Scholar
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    Jerome Christensen, Lord Byron’s Strength: Romantic Writing and Commercial Society (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), p. 60.Google Scholar
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    Francis Hodgson, Sir Edgar (London: J. Mackinlay, 1810, repr. with an introduction by Donald Reiman, New York: Garland, 1977).Google Scholar
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    John Cam Hobhouse, Imitations and Translations from the Ancient and Modem Classics, Together with Original Poems Never Before Published (London: Longman, 1809). This miscellany also included nine poems by Byron.Google Scholar
  23. 34.
    On death and valediction at the end of Canto Two, see Paul Elledge, ‘Chasms in Connections: Byron Ending (in) Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 1 and 2’, English Literary History 62 (1995), 131–44.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Samuel Smiles, A Publisher and His Friends: Memoir and Correspondence of the Late John Murray, with an Account of the Origin and Progress of the House, 1768–1843, 2 vols (London: John Murray, 1891), I, 210. Nicholas Mason has shown the effectiveness of Murray’s promotional campaign in ‘Building Brand Byron: Early-Nineteenth-Century Advertising and the Marketing of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’, Modern Language Quarterly, 63 (2002), 411–41.Google Scholar
  27. 40.
    Cf. McGann’s summary of the effect: ‘Its publisher conceived its audience to be a wealthy one, people interested in travel books and topographical poems, people with a classical education with a taste for antiquarian lore and the philosophical musings of a young English lord. As it turned out, all of England and Europe were to be snared by his book’s imaginations.’ Jerome J. McGann, The Beauty of Inflections: Literary Investigations in Historical Method and Theory (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), p. 259.Google Scholar
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    William St Clair, ‘The Impact of Byron’s Writings: An Evaluative Approach’, in Byron: Augustan and Romantic, ed. Andrew Rutherford (London: Macmillan, 1990), pp. 1–25 (esp. p. 6). Thirty shillings is the price for the poem in wrappers; 50 shillings takes into account the cost of binding.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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