On March 10, 1812 Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Cantos I and II, was made available to the public. The first edition of five hundred quarto copies, priced at fifty shillings for a bound copy, were sold out in three days. An octavo edition of three thousand copies at twelve shillings was on the market within two days. Byron is supposed to have said, "I awoke one morning and found myself famous."
Fiona MacCarthy in Byron: Life and Legend (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002) at page 159 writes that the decision to bring out the poem in a large format was made by John Murray over the objections of Lord Byron. She writes:
He had disapproved of John Murray's decision to publish Childe Harold in a large format quarto edition, calling it 'a cursed unsaleable size'. The approximate price of a bound copy, 50 shillings, has been assessed by the literary economist William St. Clair as equivalent to 50 per cent of the weekly income of a gentleman. However, in three days the first edition of 500 copies had all gone.
The poem reads in parts like a travelogue retracing Byron's travels through the Mediterranean and East in 1809-1811. On a more abstract level, it is a quest poem where Harold "sore sick at hear" goes on a pilgrimage to find some meaning or spiritual renewal in a world in chaos. The emotional intensity of the the poem's expression resonated with a public that was weary with war, revolution and economic upheaval. The public reaction of the poem is thus, in some ways, as interesting as the poem. Harold, the artistic creation, rooted in Byron's own experiences, becomes for the public incarnate in the person of Lord Byron. The author was becoming his creation. Again, Fiona MacCarthy, puts it this way: "Byron himself achieved a quasi-royal charisma in the period he would later refer to as his 'reign', the spring and summer season of 1812 when women in particular went 'stark mad' about Childe Harold an its author... Byron learned to manipulate his fame, avoiding appearing in public in the morning, steering clear of situations where his lameness would show him at a disadvantage."
From Childe Harold's Pilgrimage, Canto I
by Lord Byron
Whilome in Albion's isle there dwelt a youth
Who ne in virtue's ways did take delight;
But spent his days in riot most uncouth,
And vexed with mirth the drowsy ear of Night.
Ah me! in sooth he was a shameless wight,
Sore given to revel and ungodly glee;
Few earthly things found favour in his sight
Save concubines and carnal companie,
And flaming wassailers of high and low degree.
Childe Harold was he hight — but whence his name
And lineage long, it suits me not to say;
Suffice it, that perchance they were of fame,
And had been glorious in another day:
But one sad losel soils a name for aye,
However mighty in the olden time;
Nor all that heralds rake from coffin'd clay,
Nor florid prose, not honey'd lies of rhyme,
Can blazon evil deeds, or consecrate a crime.
Childe Harold bask'd him in the noontide sun,
Disporting there like any other fly;
Nor deem'd before his little day was done
One blast might chill him into misery.
But long ere scarce a third of his pass'd by,
Worse than adversity the Childe befell;
He felt the fulness of satiety;
Then loathed he in his native land to dwell,
Which seem'd to him more lone than Eremite's sad cell.
For he through Sin's long labyrinth had run,
Nor made atonement when he did amiss,
Had sigh'd to many, though he loved but one,
And that loved one, alas! could ne'er be his.
Ah, happy she! to 'scape from him whose kiss
Had been pollution unto aught so chaste;
Who soon had left her charms for vulgar bliss
And spoiled her goodly lands to gild his waste,
Nor calm domestic peace had ever deign'd to taste.
And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart,
And from his fellow bacchanals would flee;
'Tis said, at times the sullen tear would start,
But Pride congeal'd the drop within his e'e:
Apart he stalk'd in joyless reverie,
And from his native land resolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugg'd he almost long'd for woe,
And e'en for change of scene would seek the shades below.