‘The Fever of Vain Longing’: Emotions of War in Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III

Ildiko Csengei
  • Romanticism, April 2018, Edinburgh University Press
  • DOI: 10.3366/rom.2018.0356

Emotions of War in Lord Byron's Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto III

What is it about?

This essay deals with Byron’s 1816 visit to the field of Waterloo as described in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, Canto III. The essay aims to understand a feeling that Byron calls in the poem "the fever of vain longing". This is a complex sense of grief, where Byron's deep personal distress is mingled with his disappointment in post-Waterloo European politics and the loss of Revolutionary ideals in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. However, Byron's poem also shows how this sense of grief travels beyond the boundaries of the individual and reverberates and intensifies across a political community. A central part of the essay is the re-reading of Stanza 33’s broken mirror simile in the context of eighteenth-century notions of sensibility, sympathy, as well as military memoirs of the Romantic period.

Why is it important?

Waterloo was a victory from the point of view of the British establishment. But this essay aims to unpack the painful emotions that characterised some Whig responses to the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. The essay finds that the discourse of eighteenth-century sensibility and sympathy had an important role in the way in which Byron articulated the complex and politicised sense of melancholia and despair that affected him during 1816. In response to Waterloo, Childe Harold becomes a "man of feeling". Byron in this poem reaches out to a community of political radicals and liberals through the discourse of sensibility – a discourse that acquired radical and anti-war political overtones in military memoirs and the war poetry of the Romantic period. The age of sensibility in the eighteenth century aimed to spread positive feelings and sociability through the mechanism of sympathy. Moral philosophers of the time (Shaftesbury, Hutcheson, Hume, Adam Smith) claimed that these sentiments were the very foundation of society and they often involved a process of mirroring. Byron's broken mirror trope in Canto III shows how the same mechanisms of sympathy can create a community through negative and painful feeling even across national boundaries.


Ildiko Csengei (Author)
University of Huddersfield

I hope this article draws attention to the question of how emotions travel from person to person and get traction along the way. Interestingly, now in the age of social media we can relate to the urgency of understanding how the spreading of powerful feelings (especially negative ones) can shape individual and collective moods, as well as political opinions. It is also perhaps worth contemplating parallels with the political melancholia felt today by many in response to current political developments that have a strong personal dimension, including Britain's relationship with the rest of Europe post-2016.

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The following have contributed to this page: Ildiko Csengei