Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'Without a Sigh He Left': Byron's Poetry of Departure in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II

Academic journal article The Byron Journal

'Without a Sigh He Left': Byron's Poetry of Departure in Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II

Article excerpt


This essay explores Byron's poetry of departure in the first two cantos of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage. It examines these cantos' treatment of history and genre, their use of rhyme and phrasal repetition, their negotiation of the relationship between narrator and character, and their themes of elegy and endurance. It argues that much which is dramatic and affecting in the opening cantos derives from an exilic rhetoric that is self-subverting and self-correcting.

His house, his home, his heritage, his lands,

The laughing dames in whom he did delight,

Whose large blue eyes, fair locks, and snowy hands,

Might shake the saintship of an anchorite,

And long had fed his youthful appetite;

His goblets brimm'd with every costly wine,

And all that mote to luxury invite,

Without a sigh he left, to cross the brine,

And traverse Paynim shores, and pass Earth's central line. {CHP, I, n)

Thus Byron on his persona Childe Harold, in one of the first signs that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is the work of a masterful because eloquently duplicitous rhetorician. An illustration included in an early edition of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage gives the lie to the penultimate line's audacious rejection of'house', 'home', 'heritage', 'lands', 'dames', 'goblets' and '[a]ll that mote to luxury invite'. In this illustration (reproduced in CPIV, II, opposite p. io) to the opening canto's seventh stanza, the foregrounded, cloaked Childe stalks away from Gothic pile and dancing couples, but casts a backward or sideways glance that betrays a degree of longing. 'Without a sigh he left' strikes a signature note of the opening cantos in its mix of settled restlessness and undercurrent of self-subversion: here, the very syntax, with its gathering up of departed-from realities, cannot wholly suppress a grammatical and affective 'sigh'. The 'experience of simultaneity', in Jane Stabler's fine phrase, incorporates itself in the lineaments of Byron's style.1 As Paul Elledge notes, the repetition of the phrase 'without a sigh' {CHP, II, 16) offers an 'apparent revision of the prior text [that is, in I. n]' that brings out the 'stress of the recapitulated abandoning act'.2

Inevitably, given that Childe Harold's Pilgrimage is, among other things, a poetic travelogue, Byron has to move his poetic story on from setting to setting, culture to culture. He stages explicit scenes of farewell, leaving and departure, and he, more profoundly, dwells on comings and goings. Much that is dramatic or powerful in the opening cantos derives from such moments and meditations. Shakespeare is a kindred spirit. 'Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither; / Ripeness is all' (King Lear: Conflated Text, 5, II, 9- 11),3 says Edgar when about to leave the stage with Gloucester. The lines mark a pause in the play; they tarry on the threshold. They are serene yet troubled, since the mysterious 'Ripeness' postulated here cannot exorcise the desolate grief and hopeless hope that lie in store for Lear as he endures the 'going hence ' of Cordelia.

Chekhov, too, makes an art out of coming hither and going hence. As Richard Gilman writes:

At the outset characters arrive or have just arrived from beyond the immediate mise en scène to set things in motion. Everyone who will figure at all measurably in the action is given a stage presence before events have gone very far. At the end a surprising number of them will move on, going out of the picture, but whether they go or stay, most of them will bear the marks of encounter, interchange, or simple propinquity, and they will have been altered in some essential aspect of self-awareness, which for the most part will be left to us to intuit.4

'[A] surprising number of them will move on, going out of the picture': Gilman's language captures my subject, which has to do with the way in which Byron explores the fact that a poetry of departure is also a poetry of residual arrest; 'going out of' does not quite mean 'gone from'. …

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