By then Byron had also met his own condition of "changing his lakes for ocean," becoming not a mere local rebel but an internationalist one. The comparison with Bonaparte may seem absurd or disproportionate in many ways: for one (I was oddly struck when I realized the obviousness of this), Byron never actually engaged directly in any battle. But if modern celebrity has nineteenth-century roots, they are certainly in his combination of the role of poet with that of man of action, and on a Europe-wide scale. I say "Europe-wide" because he never crossed the Atlantic, even though his two other heroes were George Washington and Simón Bolívar, his fame in America was considerable during his lifetime, and he often expressed a desire to emigrate to the land from which the Hanoverian monarchs had been evicted.
It's difficult to picture Byron as an American. True, one of the very few "modern" things about him was a life-long obsession with his weight and his silhouette, both of which tended to fluctuate alarmingly. He once wrote that he had two fears, of getting fat and of going mad, and there were times when he was both. So he could in a pinch be a recruit to the future republic of diet and therapy. Most of his inclinations, however, lay toward those lands that had a connection to antiquity and embraced the possibility of excess. He was in some ways a premature Orientalist, very much taken with scenes of the voluptuous and the barbaric; the painting of Delacroix can be viewed as a sort of pictorial Byronism. But he was more than just a voyeur in these exotic latitudes. He took a serious interest in the religions and customs and traditions, and also the political convulsions, of the places he visited or studied. Re-reading Childe Harold's Pilgrimage recently, I came across this verse in the second canto, where the contest between the Muslim and Christian worlds, in Constantinople and in Athens, is evoked.
The city won for Allah from the Giaour,
The Giaour from Ottoman's race again may wrest;
And the Serai's impenetrable tower
Receive the fiery Frank, her former guest;
Or Wahab's rebel brood, who dared divest
The prophet's tomb of all its pious spoil,
May wind their path of blood along the West ...
The takeover and desecration of Mecca by the ultra-purist Wahhabi sect was then just a decade old. Byron's registering of this event—and his identification of a faction that now troubles us all—is the first literary mention that I know of.
Everybody understands that there was another reason why Byron liked to voyage in torrid zones. He put it pretty bluntly himself when he wrote that in England "Cant is so much stronger than Cunt." Defending Don Juan from the disapproving and the censorious, he wrote to his friend Douglas Kinnaird that it was "the sublime of that there sort of writing—it may be bawdy—but is it not good English?—it may be profligate—but is it not life, is it not the thing?" He continued, "Could any man have written it—who has not lived in the world?—and tooled in a post-chaise? in a hackney coach? in a Gondola? Against a wall? in a court carriage? in a vis-a-vis?—on a table?—and under it?" MacCarthy is surely correct in discerning a slight unease beneath this boasting. Byron must have been aware that his compulsive, exorbitant sex life was the enemy of his grander ambitions as a radical. Not only did his debauchery, alcoholic as well as carnal, consume an inordinate amount of his time, but it exacted a tremendous toll on his health. His years in England, and the ceaseless and costly confrontations with a wronged wife, a wronged mistress, and a deeply wronged half-sister, were truly an expense of spirit in a waste of shame. He evinced an unattractive contempt for the dowdier and more worthy democratic revolutionaries, notably Leigh Hunt, who seemed earthbound and respectable. He admired Milton as a poet and a dissident, but was frankly snobbish about his humble political descendants. And his post-Miltonic epic poem Cain, which is actually a very moving and despairing assault on biblical literalism and servile human credulity, was compromised by the stress he laid on Cain's love for his sister, and the inescapable analogy to his own dissipations with Augusta Leigh.