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In Canto IV of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Byron takes a look into the mortality of man, contrasting it to the immortality of Nature. He transforms from an anthropologist to a naturalist, by analyzing the imperfect aspects of mankind. However, by what methods does Byron make the transition from anthropologist to naturalist? My essay will take a look into how Bryon begins by idolizing man-made creations, just to realize that they all crumble in end. He realizes the only way to be immortal is via nature, but first he must make the transition from idolizing man to idolizing his mind. It is only when his mind is pure that he can then metaphysically bond with nature, and became immortal.

The poem starts with Byron walking through Italy. In the early nineteenth century Italy was considered an ideal setting for intellectuals. The English would travel to Italy to learn culture. It is in this setting of intellectuals where Byron sets forward his ideas. He is crossing the “Bridge of Sighs”, as realizes it is place a person would see the world before he was executed. By initiating the poem with a mention of mortality, Bryon already leaves the impression that humans are not eternal. He then contrasts “A palace and a prison” (I. ll. 2), the two different sides of power in Italy at the time – the judicial system, that decided whether people should live or not, and the palace, above all law. In contrast to future passages in the poem, Byron sees man-made constructions in the city of Venice, which have lasted over the years.

His description of the city was almost one of a magical place. It is described “from out the wave her structures rise/As from the stroke of the enchanter’s wand” (I ll. 3), as if they have no base, and simply come out of the waves. He describes the city as expanding around him, however there is a “dying Glory”. This is the beginning of the idea that Byron brings forward, that only Natural phenomena can last forever, and man-made structures are destined to fall. By the end of the first stanza however, Byron build’s up the myth of Venice by comparing it to a “Lion” (I. ll. 8) and saying that it is “thron’d on her hundred isles”. Lions can be considered to be very dominating and strong animals, yet beautiful and often glorified in European literature.

Venice is then feminized as a nymph, showing that the city of Venice is sensual, and thus attractive to the desires of man. It is described as the “ruler of the waters” (II. ll. 4). Then, in contrast to the feminine personification Bryon says that the city “had their dowers/From spoils of nations” (II. ll. 6). So not only is the city sensual, but also powerful. The city is also wealthy, with the “gems in sparkling showers” and her majestic description that “in purple was she robed”. Suddenly all the myth is cracked. He states, “Tasso’s echoes are no more” (III ll. 1) showing how in modern Venice the legends and magic of the past are no more. After building up the city in the first two initial stanzas, the third stanza suddenly destroys the myth. The gondolier, almost a landmark of the city of Venice is “songless” (III. ll. 2) and the “palaces are crumbling.” The same palace that stood as a symbol of power was now a ruin. And then the main theme of the poem is brought to light. Bryon states that “Those days are gone” (III. ll. 5) referring to the past, but says that “Beauty is still here.” But what beauty is here if all structures are crumbling? It is “Nature [that] doth not die”. This is Byron’s first mention that everything made by man – including humans – are mortal, whilst Nature is immortal. This is the turning point to the poem. Byron realizes that humans cannot be immortal, and as such are imperfect and anything they do is prone to collapse.

Byron states, “The beings of the mind are not of clay/Essentially immortal”. This is the most important point – the humans (beings of clay in the bible image) are mortal, and all their things die. It is at this point that Byron attempts to take a different view, and tries to look at the situation from a higher state of mind than before. He then glorifies the mind instead of the human being itself. The poet shows spiritual exhaustion in stanza six (the “worn feeling peoples many a page” [VI. ll. 3]) and begs the question if this poem is a method of catharsis or a product of fatigue. There seems to be something wrong with being human, and he sets out to write the poem – in an attempt to cut loose anything that links him to humanity. He sees his work “grow beneath [his] eye” (VI. ll. 4) and again describes his point:

“Yet there are things whose strong reality

Outshines our fairy-land; in shape and hues

More beautiful than our fantastic sky”

The fairy-land is referring to the Venice of the past. The “things” refer to Natural and metaphysical phenomena, that are more amazing than anything that man can ever attempt to make. Byron says that he dreamed of these events in stanza seven, with an intense feeling: “They came like truth.” (VII. ll. 2) However, this ‘truth’ “disappeared like dreams”, which renders this experience only temporary. It is as if Byron is slowly trying to formulate his ideas, however he is not able to make sense of them – yet. He also makes it seem that idolizing the mind is his goal (“with many a form which aptly seems/Such as I sought for” [VII. ll. 5-6]), however his “Reason” (VII. ll. 7) made these “over-weening phantasies unsound” (VII. ll. 8). Byron is yet to achieve a state of conscious that would allow him to bond with Nature, and thus still remains mortal, for his thoughts (the “Reason”) are still a product of humankind – and as thus are fragile and cannot be immortal.

Now closer to the end of the poem, Byron is able to achieve the Naturalist state, and bonds with Nature. In stanza 178 he slowly begins to become more appreciative of Nature:

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,

There is a rapture on the lonely shore,

There is a society, where none intrudes” (CLXXVIII. ll. 1-3)

Byron is slowly accepting the fact that whilst humans are faulty and thus mortal, it is Nature who is stronger:

“I love not Man the less, but Nature more” (CLXXVIII. ll. 5)

And he decided that the path to immortality must be something superhuman. He must move from appreciating physical beauty (such as Venice) to the mind, and then to Nature. He then begins his metaphysical experience to “mingle with the Universe” (CLXXVIII. ll. 8) and feel something that he “can ne’er express” (CLXXVIII. ll. 9). This shows that he is past his mortal mindstate, and is in the transition to the higher state of being, via the metaphysical bond with Nature. He is now at a point where he no longer has human feelings, and as such does not even know how to describe what he is currently feeling.

The next stanza adds to the situation. He is a part of Nature, and commands it as if he were an authority: “Roll on… – Roll!” (CLXXIX. ll. 1), and then criticizes man from his new standpoint. Given that now he has mingled with Nature, he looks back towards mortal man, stating that everything man makes decays, and his power succumbs to the greater power of Nature. Nature is stronger than man can ever be, and there is no place for mankind. The only form of salvation is through the higher state of mind that Byron is in – otherwise mankind is doomed to crumble:

“Man marks the Earth with ruin – his control

Stops with the shore; – upon the watery plain

The wrecks are all thy deed” (CLXXIX. ll. 9)

Byron then begins to idolize Nature, and personifies Nature as removing man as if he was a parasite. However this parasite is so weak that all the earth must do to remove him is to “shake.” Earth is then again personified and “despises” mankind:

“His steps are not upon thy paths, – thy fields

Are not a spoil for him, – thou dost arise

And shake him from thee; the vile strength he wields

For earth’s destruction thou dost all despise” (CLXXX. ll. 1-4)

It is almost as if this is a game of power – where man attempts to be above Nature, by creating cities, looting other cities, and spoiling the earth. However Byron calls upon the earth to take its revenge against mankind. It is a more powerful entity and mankind is simply a leech that lives off the earth and leaves a path of destruction behind.

Two important last points to consider are why he ends the poem bonding with Nature through water, and why he personifies Nature so much in the final stanzas. The main reason for ending the poem with the sea is the ‘untouchable’ aspect of it. Whilst man can ruin the paths, the soil, and cut forests, it is the sea that presents a true challenge. It represented a deadly area that only brave men dared to tread, due to unpredictable phenomena such as storms and winds. It is the sea that represents the final boundary for human conquest – yet it is so vast that this is an impossible task. And by bonding with Nature via the sea, he sets himself into a place that is untouchable by humans, and thus he can look back without having to question his own ideas. As for Nature’s personification, there could be two possible reasons to explain this. The first is that Byron has never experienced anything other than human emotions, and as such does not know how to explain his metaphysical way in any other way. The second could be that he has still not purified his thoughts enough, and his subconscious is still trying to get hold of the human part of the poet, even though he is passing through a metaphysical experience.

It is only through the elevation of Byron’s ideology that he is able to achieve the higher state of conscious and bond with Nature. He realizes from the start that everything manmade is doomed to decay – because it is as imperfect as humans. The only way to achieve immortality is by bonding with Nature. Yet to bond it is necessary to purge one’s mind of human thoughts, and thus make the transition from physical (idolizing Venice), to spiritual (idolizing the mind), to metaphysical (idolizing Nature). Once mingled with Nature, Byron reflects about humanity and states how petty it is compared to Nature – and commands (as if he – only by becoming one with Nature – has now become a God) Nature to take its revenge, and crush all of man’s creations and the race itself. It is only by inner peace, however, that Byron is able to create this effect – otherwise he too would be human, and as such prone to the same deficiencies he describes in stanzas 178-180.


simply the poem

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