The third canto continues the travelogue from last two canto's, written by Lord Byron who gets a fair idea of political scenario while traveling Europe. It also talks about the battles of the French Revolution.
Here I'm going to give you a line to line explanation of the whole poem.
Conqueror and captive of the earth art thou! She trembles at thee still, and thy wild name Was ne'er more bruited in men's minds than now That thou art nothing, save the jest of Fame, Who woo'd thee once, thy vassal, and became The flatterer of thy fierceness, till thou wert A god unto thyself; nor less the same To the astounded kingdoms all inert, Who deem'd thee for a time whate'er thou didst assert.
He talks about how Napoleon was also a conquer and captive of Earth. Napoleon is shown as a savage, ruthless person. When people hear your name, there is a noise. They are not scared of you. There is no integrity of gravity in you, you are just famous. You have confidence and that’s the only reason, fame flattered you. For the kingdom, you came as an active person to save the country. They obeyed you because they were inert being.
Oh, more or less than man -- in high or low, Battling with nations, flying from the field; Now making monarchs' necks thy footstool, now More than thy meanest soldier taught to yield: An empire thou couldst crush, command, rebuild, But govern not thy pettiest passion, nor, However deeply in men's spirits skill'd, Look through thine own, nor curb the lust of war, Nor learn that tempted Fate will leave the loftiest star.
Childe Harold - the name used for a person belonging to the nobility. It may be used for Lord Byron. We can interpret that the writer is doing a very personal attack on Napoleon. You have learned to conquer the world, but failed to conquer your desire. You have been a man who is always in action. You were a great leader who can rule the world, but you have conquered it. You have taught your meanest soldier or you have become meanest ruler. You have that passion and zeal which can crush the world, but you fail at garnering your own mind. He is not able to control his own mind and therefore he is not a great emperor. You do not share the humanitarian attitude towards the rest of the people. You might be referred to a wise man, but you must know that fate will not always be at your side. You are all alone like a lofty star.
Yet well thy soul hath brook'd the turning tide With that untaught innate philosophy, Which, be it wisdom, coldness, or deep pride, Is gall and wormwood to an enemy. When the whole host of hatred stood hard by, To watch and mock thee shrinking, thou hast smiled With a sedate and all-enduring eye; -- When Fortune fled her spoil'd and favourite child, He stood unbow'd beneath the ills upon him piled.
The poet talks about the unfailing spirit of Napoleon. When things start changing, you are graceful enough to bare it. He is attributing the quality of gracefulness. You are smiling now because you think this failure is momentary, you will overcome it. You don't realize that it is the end of your reign. When fortune fled from you, nothing will reduce your spirit vigor.
Sager than in thy fortunes: for in them Ambition steel'd thee on too far to show That just habitual scorn, which could contemn Men and their thoughts; 'twas wise to feel, not so To wear it ever on thy lip and brow, And spurn the instruments thou wert to use Till they were turn'd unto thine overthrow; 'Tis but a worthless world to win or lose; So hath it proved to thee, and all such lot who choose.
This stanza is very didactic. He is talking about morals. Because your fortunes were good and your ambitions took you far away. There is no harm to be ambitious. Ambition should be momentary. Do not carry it on your visage, as if it is a part of your life. "Instruments" - people who helped him climb the ladder, he started spurning them till they become responsible for your downfall. The world is not great enough to put your energies for the ambitions and pride.
If, like a tower upon a headlong rock, Thou hadst been made to stand or fall alone, Such scorn of man had help'd to brave the shock; But men's thoughts were the steps which paved thy throne, Their admiration thy best weapon shone; The part of Philip's son was thine, not then (Unless aside thy purple had been thrown) Like stern Diogenes to mock at men; For sceptred cynics earth were far too wide a den.
If you stand like a tower on the rock, you are all alone there. If you are standing alone, you will fall also alone. But because the people were helpful to you, you can use the scorn to rebuild the kingdom. But you have to realize that the thought of these people had helped you to reach that level. You have conquered half of the world. "Purple" symbol of monarchy, power. He is detached from the people as he doesn't identify himself as a common person. The poet says that you can conquer the world, but not the heart of your men. You neither have empathy, not sympathy for people. Having a scepter in your hand doesn't mean people will follow you. You deserve to live in isolation, in a small place just like Diogenes.
But quiet to quick bosoms is a hell, And there hath been thy bane; there is a fire And motion of the soul which will not dwell In its own narrow being, but aspire Beyond the fitting medium of desire; And, but once kindled, quenchless evermore, Preys upon high adventure, nor can tire Of aught but rest; a fever at the core, Fatal to him who bears, to all who ever bore.
In this stanza, the poet is trying to say that if you have such a heart which makes you either passive or active, then it is difficult to sustain. As you cannot contain the fire, in the same way, you cannot contain desire. This thirst for desire is quenchless. It is like a fever, has the ability to kill you. Napoleon serves as a tool for a poet to make such a statement. Whenever people have high desire, they have dug up their own graves.
This makes the madmen who have made men mad By their contagion; Conquerors and Kings, Founders of sects and systems, to whom add Sophists, Bards, Statesmen, all unquiet things Which stir too strongly the soul's secret springs, And are themselves the fools to those they fool; Envied, yet how unenviable! what stings Are theirs! One breast laid open were a school Which would unteach mankind the lust to shine or rule:
Desires like fire spread it's contagious, some madman like Napoleon have made others mad. Napoleon has also been desired by other men. Madmen are conquering, kings, religious headers, philosophers. The secret desires lying within the soul. We see other ambitious people, but these people don't realize that they themselves are fools as this fire within will burn them down. They have led to their self-destruction. If you will analyze their lives, you will realize that this power, glory, ambition is not the only goal of life. It will forget you what you have learned.
Their breath is agitation, and their life A storm whereon they ride, to sink at last, And yet so nursed and bigotted to strife, That should their days, surviving perils past, Melt to calm twilight, they feel overcast With sorrow and supineness, and so die; Even as a flame unfed, which runs to waste With its own flickering, or a sword laid by, Which eats into itself, and rusts ingloriously.
Through these above lines, the poet is saying that their life is not easy, storm leaves them to sink at last. When you transform in the old age bearing all the problems, they overcome with sorrow, become weak. This activeness will lead to certain inertia. Now you will eventually die of thinking that you can no longer be active, no longer be ambitious. The imagery of sword and fire. It contains within itself the source of its destruction. Similarly, the source of destruction lies within us.
He who ascends to mountain-tops, shall find The loftiest peaks most wrapt in clouds and snow. He who surpasses or subdues mankind, Must look down on the hate of those below. Though high above the sun of glory glow, And far beneath the earth and ocean spread, Round him are icy rocks, and loudly blow Contending tempests on his naked head, And thus reward the toils which to those summits led.
The poet is saying that he who ascends to the peaks of life, you have all isolated, your vision is clouded. You are solitary, lonely, there is no growth, you cannot see what is right or wrong. When you subdue your fellow being, when you look down all you see is hatred in people. You are on the top of the world, beneath our oceans, but all you can see the icy rocks, vulnerable to your destruction, you don't feel the warmth of glory. The wind is blowing, the atmosphere is tempestuous, therefore, it becomes difficult to survive. You labored so hard, but the reward you got was icy rocks, hatred, etc.