This is the book that made Lord Byron (George Gordon) famous. He was a published and a known poet, but until this book took the English-speaking world by storm in 1812, he was not a famous poet.
He was, however, a celebrity. As an aristocrat whose personal life was considered shockingly scandalous - and even today would be good stuff for celebrity gossip magazines - his name was known. His previous work was received out of a mixture of literary merit and personal notoriety. This book directly capitalizes on that. Childe Harold narrates the experiences of a young nobleman, sated with the wine, women, and song of his native England, who goes forth in search of the wine, women, song, and adventure of Spain, Greece, and the Ottoman Empire.
The book is literally an armchair travelogue in rhyming couplets, quite unlike anything before or since. He expresses himself in vivid, forceful and emotional language on the landscapes, people, customs, and cultures he encounters, and shapes his experience into a deep study of that subject so favored by all the Romantic poets - himself.
This performance of the work is underscored at intervals with excerpts from the music of Byron's contemporary, John Field, often regarded as the inventor of the nocturne - a form of Romantic music very well suited to the romanticism of the poet and his work.
The audio of this great poem is compromised by two problems: piano music intrudes at the end of each section, drowning out the words for a stanza at a time, and the narrator, Robert Bethune, turns in an eccentric performance. His reading isn't bad exactly, as his pacing is good and he stresses the right syllables. However, his voice has a slightly nasal tone, and he has a tendency to swoop and soar, coming dangerously close to a sing-song delivery. While this can be a little annoying, it is still much better than having no poem at all. Maybe I'll get used to it.
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Basically, I agree with Tim McGrath's insightful and incisive review of this title. While I don't find that the piano interludes drown out the narration, I do find that they detract from the mood of the piece rather than supporting it. And I find Robert Bethune's pinched nasal tones initially very irritating indeed. In this case, however, I can't agree that they veer toward the sing-song (as is unfortunately the case with Bethune's "Don Juan," where his handling of the verse always reminds me the deliberate child-like inspidity of Wally Cox's rhyming dialogue in the old Underdog cartoons). To me, in "Childe Harold," Bethune's "swooping and soaring" (as McGrath has it) mesh perfectly with his other merits: "his pacing is good and he stresses the right syllables." In fact, Bethune's expert handling of the poem's nine-line stanza form brings out Byron's own expert handling of the form in a way that many performances of stanzaic poetry do not. That fact, and the fact that Bethune so far has the narration of "Childe Harold" (and almost all of Byron's works) pretty much to himself, is enough to cover a multitude of sins. To paraphras McGrath one more time: Bethune's delivery can be annoying, but it is much better than having no audiobook at all.