Byronic Ambivalence in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage IV

Article excerpt

In Childe Harold's Pilgrimage IV, Byron's treatment of imagination and reality, art and nature, subjectivity and objectivity, reason and feeling, freedom and tyranny, time and eternity, demonstrates a Romantic logic that defies one-sidedness. In this essay I want to argue against a number of familiar critical readings of the canto that want to read it according to the binary logic of 'either/or' - whereby Byron becomes either (mostly) optimistic or (mainly) pessimistic. I want to suggest that the poem is not characterised by a predominant mood or perspective but by an ambivalence towards all moods and perspectives.

From the outset, the canto's discursive amalgamation of seemingly incompatible elements is foregrounded. Byron's original intentions were to publish the poem with Hobhouse's notes on the historical facts behind the canto's allusions. Byron's Preface, written with the prospect of such an edition in view, prepares the reader for an encounter with both the personal time of the lyric persona and the historical time of Europe's past. The enterprise envisages a complex interweaving of past and present, subjectivity and objectivity, imaginative writing and historical fact. This was not realised as originally planned, since Murray refused to have the poem and the notes printed together - and only reluctantly agreed to publish Hobhouse's contribution in a separate volume.1 Nevertheless, the initial design seems to have influenced the final product, as the text of the poem itself blurs the boundaries between, and undermines oppositions between, the self and outer world, literature and history, time and eternity. Where the first and second cantos of Childe Harold might well be called a 'descriptive medley mixing travel and history', and the third 'a poem in the confessional mode of Rousseau and Wordsworth', the fourth canto is a 'synthesis of the previous two poems' and of the many contradictory elements the earlier cantos bring together.2

At the very beginning of Childe Harold IV, Byron famously introduces duality by juxtaposing 'a palace and a prison' (1). This binary can be, and has been, seen as symbolising two contradictory modes running through the canto: the celebratory and the dejected.3 Shelley was among the first to ignore the unifying dichotomy of the poem, referring to the spirit in which it was written as 'the most wicked and mischievous insanity that ever was given forth' and reducing the text to its 'expressions of contempt and desperation'.4 A trend of literary criticism has adopted this interpretation, dismissing in various ways the canto's celebratory aspects and seeking to foreground its pessimism,5 reading it as a sustained articulation of 'the claims of despair',6 or, at best, as 'elegiac'.7

The first stanza of the canto certainly sets up an opposition between past and present that assigns value to the former and dismisses the latter as worthless, using the image of 'a dying Glory' smiling over recollections of a past that is categorically over. 'Those days are gone.' What is lost is important both politically and artistically: 'States fall, arts fade'. Nevertheless, counter arguments prohibit downright pessimism - 'Beauty still is here', 'Nature doth not die' (3). The transience of human achievements is counterbalanced by the immortality of nature, and by the canto itself, which keeps record not just of beauty but also of human history. On the one hand, the 'poem makes the past available to the informed imagination so that it can contribute to self-knowledge in the present'.8 On the other hand, however, admiration for the past is itself checked by the use of a vocabulary of belligerence and conflict: Venice's glorious past was built upon the 'spoils of nations' (2).

Ambivalent from the outset, then, the poem almost immediately complicates further any absolute opposition between past and present and between celebration and dejection. The Rialto Bridge, a material monument of the past within the present, may decay but this is not the case with all art: the 'Venetian' characters in British literature will always exist. …