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The rule of arranging chronologically the poetical productions of Lord Byron is, of necessity, in so far violated in this volume - since it comprises the whole romance of Childe Harold, the composition of which was begun in 1809, and ended in 1818.
The propriety of the course we have on this occasion adopted must, however, be quite obvious. Commenced before, perhaps, the Author's powers had reached their utmost developement, the work was always, at whatever intervals,- some of them considerable, -taken up by him as one which he desired and designed to render complete in itself; the realisation of a plan and conception entirely novel and peculiar, —that of presenting in a continuous stream of verse, the essence of the thoughts and feelings elicited from his individual mind, during a succession of years, and at different stages, consequently, of his intellectual and moral being, by the contemplation of those chosen scenes of external nature,
- whether in themselves extraordinarily beautiful or sublime, or raised to immortal interest by the transactions which they had witnessed, and the personages with whose names they had come to be inextricably interwoven, — which it had been his own fortune to traverse in the course of his earthly pilgrimage. Taken as a whole, this Poem is, undoubtedly, the most original and felicitous of all Lord Byron's serious efforts. It opens the first specimen of an absolutely new species of composition; — perhaps the only such specimen that European literature had received during a period of two centuries -- in other words, since Shakspeare founded the Romantic Drama, and Cervantes the Romantic Novel of modern Europe.
Of the general history of the Poem, it cannot be necessary to say much to the readers of the preceding volumes of this collection. The first Canto was commenced, as Lord Byron's diaries inform us, at Joannina in Albania, on the 31st of October, 1809; and the second was finished on the 28th of March, in the succeeding year, at Smyrna. These two Cantos, after having received numberless corrections
and additions in their progress through the press, were first published in London in March, 1812, and immediately placed their author on a level with the very highest names of his age. The impression they created was more uniform, decisive, and triumphant, than any that had been witnessed in this country for at least two generations. “I awoke one morning," he says, “ and found myself famous.” In truth, he had fixed himself, at a single bound, on a summit, such as no English poet had ever before attained, but after a long succession of painful and comparatively neglected efforts.
Those who wish to analyse with critical accuracy the progress of Lord Byron in his art, must, of course, interpose their study of various minor pieces, to be comprised in the ninth volume of this series, between their perusal of the first and second Cantos of Childe Harold, and that of the third; which was finished at Diodati, near Geneva, in July, 1816, and records the author's mental experiences during his perambulations of the Netherlands, the Rhine country, and Switzerland, in that and the two preceding months — the poetical auto-biography of, perhaps, the most melancholy period of his not less melancholy than glorious life, - that in which the wounds of domestic misery
that had driven him from his native land, were yet green, and bleeding at the touch. This Canto was published, by itself, in August, 1816; and, notwithstanding at once the proverbial hazard of continuations, and the obloquy which envious exaggeration had at the time attached to Lord Byron's name, was all but universally admitted to have more than sustained the elevation of the original flight of Childe Harold. A just and generous article, by Sir Walter Scott, in the Quarterly Review, not only silenced the few cavillers who had ventured to challenge the inspiration of this magnificent Canto, but had a more powerful influence than Lord Byron, gratefully as he acknowledged it, seems to have been aware of, in rebuking the harsh prejudices which had unfortunately gathered about some essential points of his personal character.
The fourth, and by far the longest Canto, in itself no doubt the grandest exertion of Lord Byron's genius, appears to have occupied the nearly undivided labour of half a year. It was begun at Venice, in June, 1817, and finished, in the same city, in January, 1818; and, being shortly afterwards published in London, carried the Author's fame to the utmost height it ever reached. It is at once the most flowing, the most energetic, and the most solemn of all his pieces; and would of itself sufficiently justify the taste of the surviving affection that dictated for the sole inscription of his tombstone, 66 Here lies the Author of Childe Harold's Pilgrimage."
It has been our object to do now for this great work, as far as our means might permit, what the Author himself would, of course, have wished to do for it, had he survived to see it produced in such a form of publication as the present. We have endeavoured to equip it with such a body of Notes and Illustrations as may render its often evanescent hints intelligible throughout to the general reader, of what we must already consider as a new generation. From Lord Byron's own Letters and Diaries, - from the writings of Sir John Cam Hobhouse, the truest and sincerest, as well as ablest of his friends, to whom the fourth Canto is dedicated in terms of the most touching kindness and manly respect, — and from various other sources, we have collected whatever seemed necessary to explain the historical and statistical allusions of the poetical Pilgrim ; and, though by no means desirous of overloading his pages with merely critical remarks, we have not hesitated to quote here and there a peculiarly striking observation, called forth by some signal