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  • Chasms in Connections: Byron Ending (in) Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 1 and 2
  • Paul Elledge

Two years and twelve days after departing England for his continental tour, Lord Byron landed at Sheerness on 14 July 1811 bearing the manuscript about to rocket him into international fame. 1 It tracks the months of recurrent dislocation intrinsic to a pilgrimage that enacted the chronic discontinuity of the poet’s affinitive history. Just over one-hundred lines into the new poem, a valedictory lyric by the voyaging pilgrim sings a simulated indifference to his desertion of family and friends, and foresees as his destination the desolated terrain to which in fact its author returned. 2 This essay explores Byron’s response to the devastation he in disembarking met, principally as textualized in stanzas added to Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage 1 and 2 in August and October 1811. But these supplements, partially driven by the deaths of the friends they covertly honor — John Wingfield in 1 and John Edleston in 2 — also materialize the poet’s apprehensions about reengaging a readership after his recklessly undiscriminating English Bards and Scotch Reviewers had jarred and piqued the British literary establishment in 1809. The stanzas in question encrypt anxieties aroused by gaps in Byron’s personal landscape and inflamed by the imminence of a gap between poet and manuscript — by the rift created with his abandonment of the Childe to an uncertain audience. My subject, broadly, is Byron ending: suffering, evading, disguising, denying, performing, and surviving terminations; ending relationships, poems, relationships with poems and their audiences; designing structures to accommodate and facilitate the dissociative imperative that determines so much of his verse as it disabled so many of his connections. More particularly, I look at the complementary coincidence of fateful human with necessary authorial separation in Byron’s elaborated conclusions to his cantos, whereby he converts a psychic deficiency into a textual strength that ministers to the anxieties it inscribes. Among these, ruptures not of his making actuate a Pilgrimage discourse that nevertheless exploits them in the vexatious task of textual termination. [End Page 121]


Two testimonial stanzas (1.91–92) precede the deceptively conventional parting address to Byron’s readership that formally concludes canto 1 of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. 3 The collective circumstances inspiring them realized, with horribly concentrated impact, the vision of decimation ending Harold’s “Good Night” song (CH, 1.118197), for they resonate with the grief that staggered Byron as he learned, in Jobean succession, of the deaths of five intimates between July and October 1811, while preparing his new poem for the press. Mrs. Byron died on 1 August at Newstead Abbey, before reunion with her son who had lingered in London from mid-July. News of the deaths of two schoolmates, Hargreaves Hanson, second son of Byron’s solicitor, at 23, and John Wingfield, at 20, “among my juniors and favourites [at Harrow], whom I spoilt by indulgences” (M, 21), reached Byron in late July. Charles Skinner Matthews, the poet’s high-spirited Cambridge companion, strangled among underwater weeds in the River Cam on 3 August. And by 10 October, Byron knew that his beloved Cambridge chorister John Edleston was dead of consumption. On 7 August he wrote in (an uncannily proleptic Frankensteinian) anguish to Scrope Berdmore Davis:

Some curse hangs over me and mine. My mother lies a corpse in this house: one of my best friends is drowned in a ditch. What can I say, or think, or do? My dear Scrope, if you can spare a moment, do come down to me, I want a friend. Matthews’s last letter was written on Friday, — on Saturday he was not.... Come to me, Scrope, I am almost desolate — left almost alone in the world.” 4

And on the 10th to John Cam Hobhouse:

My dwelling, you already know, is the House of Mourning, & I am really so much bewildered with the different shocks I have sustained, that I can hardly reduce myself to reason by the most frivolous occupations. My poor J. Wingfield, my Mother, & and your best friend, (surely not the worst of mine) C [harles] S [kinner] M [atthews] have disappeared in one little month...

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pp. 121-148
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