I recently finished a novel. In Eileen McHugh, A Life Remade, I created a character named Alice, a near-retirement art teacher, as the main character’s sculpture teacher during her first year as an art student. The structure of the book demanded that the story, set in the 1970s, be told by contemporary survivors from today’s perspective. Alice would not have lived until now, so I handed over responsibility for her character to her son, a physics professor at a university in the north of England. He had already decided on the last name of the artistic house in which the son grew up. It was, by chance, Childe. These two artist parents, one three-dimensional, the other two, would certainly have chosen a one-dimensional name for their son, so I named him Harold, Harold Childe. That was a joke.
Then a few days later, I heard a performance by Harold in Italy, the viola concerto in everything but the name Berlioz. Somewhere in this drug-fueled romance there was an account, or perhaps a mere reflection, of Byron’s travels to Childe Harold in Italy. It occurred to me that I should reread the poem. I first read it when I was the age my character, Eileen McHugh, was in her art school. Now he couldn’t remember almost anything about it.
It is an equally drug-laden Lord Byron heroic poem, written in nine-line stanzas, eight pentameters followed by the final Alexandrine. Rhyme ABABBCBCB, which means that five lines in each stanza rhyme in a traditional way. In it, our eponymous hero crosses the Mediterranean by sea, if that is linguistically possible, and visits many places where an art education might recall a classical allusion. Throughout the journey, he visits places with millennia of obvious history and proceeds to show much of what he knows, everything learned within the confines of a private English education. The Harold child remains self-obsessed, always willing to put his own responses at the forefront of his thoughts, often despite external stimulation. But that’s romanticism, right? And hadn’t he just written about Eileen McHugh, a concept artist from the 1970s who imagined the meaning of everything she could choose to juxtapose?
Some years ago, I wrote a novel that attempted a loose parody of Don Quixote. It was titled In Search of Donald Cottee. I’m the person who wrote it, so you won’t be surprised by my estimate of success. I was particularly proud of my update on the Cuevas de Montesinos episode. I began to wonder how Byron’s Harold could be parodied some 200 years after his conception.
So instead of reviewing Childe Harold, which has probably been done, what I offer here is a parody plan that may never be written. The first two stanzas, for me, if I lived them today, would be a Mediterranean cruise. Let’s not experience much first-hand, but let’s enjoy being left for a couple of hours in the protected area of some famous, visited, historical place, as specified in the brochure. One diary, carried by our cruise ship, written in verse, is Childe Harold 2020, with sections copied from the brochures handed out on the day trips ashore. It is not Childe Harold’s or any other passenger’s reflections on the experience that form the essence, but rather he takes quotes from the tourist notes provided to anyone who has paid for the tour.
Later stanzas travel inland. How we got from A to B is largely ignored, but Byron rarely strays from the Grand Tour. In contemporary terms. It is surely a bus trip, a group of 50 such people who march, chattering, past the wonders of Neapolitan art in Capodimonte, to be lectured aloud in front of the Caravaggio, in Milan they ignore the Brera to marvel at the peeling of the Last Supper. plaster and congregants surround the copy of David in front of the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. I think I’m kidding. But Naples is too dirty to walk, right?
What interests me in 2020 is the fact that the coronavirus pandemic would make a cruise and bus trip quite difficult to undertake. The barriers are obvious and I won’t even try to list them. So how would Childe Harold 2020 manage to suffer his cascading emotional paroxysms?
Online, this is how. WebCams, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Airb’n’b reviews, restaurant evaluations complete with apologetic comments from the owner about the service, this is how our blockade 2020 Childe Harold could play his viola. Imagine retirees locked up at home. Where did you go today darling? I took a walk through the Uffizi. Ignored the shit. I just looked at the Canalettos. Read about them too. Views of Venice, apparently. The poem will be epic.