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Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, a Romaunt by Lord Byron >


Byron admiring Lady Charlotte Harley (Ianthe)

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage (Canto I ) was first published by John Murray on 10th March 1812. The poem is based on Byron's experiences during a trip to Portugal and Spain between July and August 1809, and was mainly written in Albania during the course of 1810. A second Canto, finished after Byron's return to England, was published in one volume with the first later in 1812, recording additionally some of Byron's experiences in Greece and Albania.

The first two cantos were later dedicated by Byron with a short poem to Lady Charlotte Harley (addressed as 'Ianthe'), the twelve year old daughter of Jane Harley, Countess of Oxford. Byron was having an affair with the mother at the time. The dedication was first added to the published text of Childe Harold with the seventh edition in 1814.

Why Byron chose to dedicate the first two cantos of the poem to a twelve year old girl is an interesting question, as is the question as to why he addresses her as 'Ianthe'. An attempt to answer the first question would probably run along the lines of an exploration of the thematic connection between the girl and the poem (Childe Harold) relating to innocence and the loss of innocence. The second question is more difficult. There are two mythological Ianthes, the first being one of the daughters of the ocean mentioned in the Homeric hymn to Demeter as being present at the rape of Persephone by Hades. Apart from being one of twenty one nymphs listed as present, she takes no part in the action. The second Ianthe is the object of Iphis' love in a story told by Ovid. Iphis was a girl who had been brought up as a boy to escape the wrath of her father. She managed to get the gods to intervene in the affair, and became a man, leaving the way open for her to marry Ianthe. It is difficult to see any parallels with Charlotte Harley in either story. More likely is an association with the Ianthe of Queen Mab, a long poem composed by Percy Bysshe Shelley which he sent to Byron some time during 1813. Ianthe is the main character in this long poem, who is portrayed by Shelley as a beautiful innocent, a figure based on his own wife Harriet, eighteen at the time, whose spirit is carried around the universe by Queen Mab in her chariot and shown visions of the past, present and future. 'Ianthe' is also the name given to Shelley's first born child by Harriet. That Byron could have used the name co-incidentally seems unlikely, but it is not clear why Shelley chose the name. Perhaps simply for the association of 'Ianthe' with the violet, a flower of the Spring.

Accusations emerged later through Byron's wife Annabella Millbanke that Byron had confessed to her that he had been caught pressing his sexual attentions on the young Charlotte by her mother, Lady Oxford.

At all events, the engraving attached to the dedication clearly depicts innocence threatened by the dark figure of Byron himself, and gives a specific context to the repeated vague evocations of sin, guilt and repentance which form Harold's past in the body of the text. Byron himself was subject to early sexual exploitation (by a maid at nine years of age), and it is most likely that he himself had sexual contacts with younger boys at Harrow school.

To Ianthe

Not in those climes where I have late been straying,
Though Beauty long hath there been matchless deemed;
Not in those visions to the heart displaying
Forms which it sighs but to have only dreamed
Hath aught like thee in truth or fancy seemed:
Nor having seen thee shall I vainly seek
To paint those charms which varied as they beamed,
To such as see thee not my words were weak,
To those who gaze on thee what language could they speak?

Ah! may'st thou ever be what now thou art,
Nor unbeseem the promise of thy spring,
As fair in form, as warm yet pure in heart,
Love's image upon earth without his wing,
And guileless beyond Hope's imagining!
And surely she who now so fondly rears
Thy youth, in thee thus hourly brightening,
Beholds the rainbow of her future years,
Before whose heavenly hues all sorrow disappears. -

Young Peri of the West! - 'tis well for me
My years already doubly number thine;
My loveless eye unmoved may gaze on thee,
And safely view thy ripening beauties shine;
Happy, I ne'er shall see them in decline,
Happier, that while all younger hearts shall bleed,
Mine shall escape the doom thine eyes assign,
To those whose admiration shall succeed,
But mixed with pangs to Love's even loveliest hours decreed.

Oh! let that eye, which, wild as the Gazelle's,
Now brightly bold, or beautifully shy,
Wins as it wanders, dazzles where it dwells,
Glance o'er this page, nor to my verse deny
That smile for which my breast might vainly sigh,
Could I to thee be ever more than friend,
This much, dear maid, accord - nor question why
To one so young my strain I would commend,
But bid me with my wreath one matchless lily blend.

Such is thy name with this my verse entwined;
And long as kinder eyes a look shall cast
On Harold's page - Ianthe's here enshrined
Shall thus be first beheld, forgotten last;
My days once numbered, should this homage past
Attract thy fairy fingers near the lyre
Of him who hailed thee, loveliest as thou wast,
Such is the most my memory may desire,
Though more than Hope can claim - could Friendship less require?

Childe Harold's Pilgrimage - leaving England