Latin America’s “Chiaroscuro” Byron

Stephen M. Hart (University College London)
Jordan Hart (University of Amsterdam)
‘“How beautiful would it be if the isthmus of Panama could be for us what the isthmus of Corinth was for the Greeks!”’(Simón Bolívar, The Jamaica Letter)

In this essay we intend to edge towards an understanding of the ways in which Latin America and English Romanticism—as epitomized by its most influential figure, Lord Byron (1788–1824)—clashed and overlapped during the long nineteenth century. This coming-together took a variety of forms: Lord Byron for example, had a profound influence on a number of nineteenth-century Latin American writers, including the Argentine novelist, José Mármol (1818–1871) who has a scene in his novel, Amalia (1851), based on the reading of Byron’s poems, and the Brazilian poet Manuel Antônio Álvares de Azevedo (1831–1852) whose work exudes Byromania. But the influence was not only one way. In the concluding section of our essay, we point to how the celebrated figure of Latin America’s independence, Simón Bolívar (1783–1830), encouraged Byron in his pursuit of not only literary but also political freedom.

It is well-known that Byron’s reputation abroad often eclipsed his stature in his homeland, where his morality was rejected by many as “questionable”—he was accused of sodomy while at school in Harrow, at university in Cambridge, and in the Mediterranean while completing his Grand Tour, and of committing incest with his half-sister, Augusta Leigh—and for this reason Dean Ireland refused to accept his body for burial in Westminster Abbey when it arrived from Greece in the spring of 1824.

Byron was subsequently buried in the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire.

Seen as a hero in Greece, as a result of his struggles on behalf of Greek independence in the early 1820s (Trayiannoudi), Byron was also admired as the principal figure of Romanticism in a number of European countries, including France (Wilkes and Cochran), Switzerland (Giddey), Italy (Zuccato and Iamartino), Spain (Flitter and Cardwell), Portugal (Machado de Souza), Romania (Anghelescu), Germany (Pointner & Geisenhanslüke), Holland (D’haen), the Czech Republic (Procházka), Poland (Modrzewska), Hungary (Rákai), Russia (Diakonova & Vatsuro), Bulgaria (Kostadinova), Denmark (Nielsen), Norway (Tysdahl), Sweden (Elam), Armenia (Bekaryan), Georgia (Merabishvili) and Turkey (Demata). One of the aims of this essay is to provide some sense of the influence created in Latin America by Byron to complement Richard’s Cardwell two-volume study of The Reception of Byron in Europe (2004). In Europe, as Cardwell suggests, Byron represented a “counterweight to the political aims of Europe’s rulers in the aftermath of the Napoleonic era” ( “Introduction” 1); he stood for “the struggle for the liberty of oppressed peoples and the struggle to define a new artistic language for the expression of that desire for freedom, social and individual” ( “Introduction” 1–2). To quote Cardwell once more, each recipient of Byron “adopted and adapted Byron to their needs; each individual writer employed Byron as a mirror to his own personal obsessions. Each nation used him to create their own literary history” ( “Introduction” 4). While no country in Latin America experienced Byromania as intensely as Spain did through the person of José de Espronceda (Churchman; Pujals; Flitter 138–41), Byron’s ideas, particularly his “revolt against Christian and rationalist belief” (Cardwell, “Introduction” 2), had a definitive impact on various Latin American countries, and he became an icon standing for political as well as artistic freedom. That impact was not experienced, though, in a uniform way across Latin America; while Argentina’s Byron was luminous and ethereal, Brazil’s was dark and brooding. This was part and parcel, as we shall see, of Byron’s “chiaroscuro” effect in Latin America.

Indeed, on one specific count, Latin America’s Byron was sharply distinct from the European prototype. As we explore in the third section of this essay, Byron not only produced a concrete impact on writers across Latin America, he was also himself influenced in a number of crucial ways by one of Latin America’s most iconic figures, Simón Bolívar. This fact allows us to argue, as far as one of the iconic figures of English Romanticism is concerned, that Latin America was not simply a receptor of the “obliterating glare of Byronic light” (Barton 291),

Barton uses this phrase in the context of her discussion of how Barrett Browning was able to “negotiate” the “obliterating glare of Byronic light” (Barton 291), and the same might be argued of Latin America.

as occurred in a number of European countries, but was instead the catalyst for new ideas and new activities. The pendulum swinging between English Romanticism (as typified by Byron) and Latin America led to a chiaroscuro effect in which Latin America reflected back as much as it soaked up the “brilliance” and “light” emanating from England’s Romanticism.

For a discussion of the central role played by light in English Romanticism see Sandy.

Byron and Mármol

Though it is generally conceded that the two most important national forms of Romanticism that impacted Latin America were French (mainly in Río de la Plata) and Spanish Romanticism (above all in Mexico, Peru and Colombia; Carilla I: 42–45), English Romantic writers were also influential in Latin America. Carilla provides us with a list of the European writers who had the greatest impact in Spanish America in the Romantic period, and Byron—along with Walter Scott—is on that list.

Carilla mentions Hugo, Byron, Chateaubriand, Walter Scott, Larra, and Espronceda (Carilla 1: 59).

We find some clear evidence of the esteem in which Byron’s work was held in Argentina, for example, in Part III, Chapter VIII of José Mármol’s novel Amalia (1851), entitled “Preámbulo de un drama.” The main drama portrayed in Mármol’s novel is the struggle between the “Unitarios” and the “Federales” which tore Argentina apart in the years immediately following Argentina’s independence. The “Federales” were backed by the dictator José Manuel Rosas, and the Unitarian faction favored establishing and enhancing links with Europe in commercial as well as cultural terms, and Amalia was a book that fiercely defended the position of the Unitarian camp. Little surprise, therefore, that at one juncture in the novel, the “Preamble of a Drama,” we see the two main Unitarian protagonists, Amalia and Eduardo, who are Romantic lovers, enraptured in their reading and translation of Byron’s poetry: ‘Eran las cinco de una tarde fría y nebulosa, y al lado de la chimenea, sentado en un pequeño taburete a los pies de Amalia, Eduardo le traducía uno de los más bellos pasajes del Manfredo, de Byron; y Amalia, reclinado su brazo sobre el hombre de Eduardo y rozando con sus rizos de seda su alta y pálida frente, lo oía, enajenada, más por la que llegaba hasta su corazón, que por los bellos raptos de la imaginación del poeta; y de cuando en cuando Eduardo levantaba su cabeza para buscar en los ojos de su Amalia un raudal mayor de poesía que el que brotaban los pensamientos del águila de los poetas del siglo XIX. (Mármol 199)’ A number of points deserve mentioning about this scene. The excerpt suggests that the musings of Byron’s imagination had transfused Latin America’s Romantic imagination, normalizing the integration of his Manfred in an Argentine setting. Eduardo is depicted as translating Manfred for Amalia, and Amalia is “enajenada” (“deranged,” lit. “out of herself”) as a result of listening to the “raptures” of the poet’s imagination. Byron is here seen as an icon offering access to authentic Romantic love, since Eduardo uses his recitation of Byron’s poetry as a pathway to finding a source of poetry that is even deeper than Byron’s poetry—within Amalia’s eyes. The esteem in which Byron was held in Argentina is suggested by the fact that he is described in this passage as “the eagle of nineteenth-century poets.” Byron’s work could be co-opted into a political project. For, while Amalia and Eduardo love poetry, their main aim is to destroy Rosas and, as the novel demonstrates, it is a political struggle in which they will one day lose their lives.

Further indication of the importance of Byron’s work in the Unitarian literary circles of Buenos Aires is the following scene in which their accomplice, Daniel, arrives and asks Amalia and Eduardo what they are reading.

It is also significant that Amalia and Eduardo are described as reading the complete works of Byron (emphasis added): “Eduardo estaba mostrando los grabados que ilustran las obras completas de lord Byron”; Mármol 199). The interest in Byron was clearly not restricted to a few party-pieces.

They ask him to guess, and they tease him when he gets it wrong—first Daniel says it is Voltaire, then Rousseau, Napoleon, and finally Don Pedro de Angelis,

Pedro de Angelis was an Argentine political thinker and author of a number of essays, including La Ciudad Encantada de la Patagonia – La Leyenda de los Cesares (1836).

before they reveal whose work they are reading:

“Es Byron, loco, es Byron,” le dijo Eduardo, enseñando a Florencia el retrato de la hija del poeta.

“Ah, Byron! Eso no tomaba café, por la razón de que era la bebida favorita de Napoleón; porque has de saber, mi Amalia, que Byron no aborrecía a Napoleón, pero tenía celos de su gloria, por cuanto sabía el taimado inglés que con él y con Napoleón debían morir las dos grandes glorias de su siglo, y con toda su alma hubiese querido que no muriese más gloria que la suya.” (Mármol 199)

That Napoleon and Byron are portrayed as tripping simultaneously off Daniel’s tongue as—between them—the “two great glories of their century” points once more to the lofty esteem that Byron’s work enjoyed in Argentina’s literary circles throughout the nineteenth century. As we see, Byron’s impact in Latin America elicited political as well as literary structures of feeling.

Byron and Álvares de Azevedo

The literary coteries of Brazil in the early to mid-nineteenth century were, according to a number of accounts, packed to the rafters with poets who suffered from acute Byromania. As the Brazilian novelist José de Alencar recalls, when he was a student in the Law Faculty of the University of São Paolo, everyone wanted to be like Byron: ‘Em 1845 voltou-me o prurido de escritor: mas êsse ano foi consagrado à mania que então grassava de byronizar. Todo estudante de alguma imaginação queria ser um Byron, e tinha por destino inexorável copiar ou traduzir o bardo inglês. . . . Assim é que nunca passei de algumas peças ligeiras, das quais não me figurava herói e nem mesmo autor, pois me divertia escrevê-las com o nome de Byron, Hugo, ou Lamartine nas paredes do meu aposento à Rua de Santa Teresa. . . . Era um desacato aos ilustres poetas atribuir-lhes versos de confecção minha. . . Que satisfação não íntima não tive eu, quando um estudante . . . releu com entusiasmo uma dessas poesias, seduzido sem dúvida pelo nome do pseudo-autor. (Qtd. in Magalhães Júnior 39) ’ The members, for example, of the Epicurus Society had a penchant for Byron-inspired and alcohol-fuelled sessions involving desecration in graveyards, black magic, Satanism, and orgies lasting a fortnight (Freire 26–50; Magalhães Júnior 45–54), and the most prominent Byromaniac of all was Manuel Antônio Álvares de Azevedo. The critic Ronald de Carvalho once called Álvares de Azevedo’s poetry “Byronesque” (“byroniana”; Pacheco Jordão 3) and the name stuck. While studying at the Colégio Pedro II, Álvares de Azevedo read the great names of the European Romantic movement—the likes of François-René de Chateaubriand, John Keats, Alfred de Musset, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and Alphonse de Lamartine—but Byron was his idol. He translated Parisina into Portuguese and, in much of his poetry, he takes on Byron’s persona.

As he wrote to Luis Antônio da Silva Nunes on 27 August 1848: “Has de conhecer a Parisina de Lord Byron. Para mim è uma das coisas mais suavemente escritas desse poeta – de tudo que eu conheço em ingles o mais suave” (Monteiro 48).

In “Hinos do profeta,” from Lira dos Vinte Anos (Poems of Twenty Years, 1853), for example, he “becomes” Byron’s Don Juan:

Passei como Don Juan entre as donzelas,
Suspirei as canções mais doloridas
E ninguém me escutou...
Oh! nunca à virgem flor das faces belas
Sorvi o mel, nas longas despedidas...
Meu Deus! ninguém me amou!
Vivi na solidão – odeio o mundo,
E no orgulho embucei meu rosto pálido
Como um astro nublado...
Ri-me da vida – lupanar imundo
Onde se volve o libertino esquálido
Na treva...profanado!
(Álvares de Azevedo, lines 73–84; 179)

In his collection O Conde Lopo, Álvares de Azevedo addresses an “Invocacão” specifically to Byron, who then “becomes” his muse:

Alma de fogo, coração de lavas,
Misterioso Bretão de ardentes sonhos
Minha musa serás—poeta altivo
Das brumas de Albion, fronte acendida
Em túrbido ferver!—a ti portanto,
Errante trovador d’alma sombria,
Do meu poema os delirantes versos.
Foste poeta, Byron! A onda uivando
Embalou-te o cismar—e ao som dos ventos
Das selváticas fibras de tua harpa
Exalou-se o rugir entre lamentos!
De infrene inspiração a voz ardente
Como o galope do corcel da Ucrânia
Em corrente febril que alaga o peito
A quem não rouba o coração – ao ler-te?
Foste Ariosto no correr dos versos,
Foste Dante no canto tenebroso,
Camões no amor e Tasso na doçura,
Foste poeta Byron!
A ti meu canto pois —cantor das mágoas
De profunda agonia!—a ti meus hinos,
Poeta da tormenta—alma dormida
Ao som do uivar das feras do oceano,
Bardo sublime das Britânias brumas!
(Álvares de Azevedo, lines 1–19, lines 30–34; 419–20)

The Brazilian poet, as this poem demonstrates, used Byron as a poetic lens through which he could survey his life, his emotions and the inhabitants of São Paolo. This type of bracketing of his experience within, as it were, Byron’s algorithm is also evident in Álvares de Azevedo’s frequent use of quotations drawn from Byron’s work as epigraphs for his poems (see Álvares de Azevedo 171, 233, 279, 319, 328, 390, 396, 412, 419, 450). He was clearly obsessed with Byron, referring to him on numerous occasions in his Speech of Acceptance into Brazil’s Academic Society given on 9 May 1850 (Álvares de Azevedo 760–66), and he even at one stage began writing letters in English to his Portuguese-speaking mother (Álvares de Azevedo 775–76; “My Cousin Inácio has been very bad with a gathering in his ear and has had leeches applied” 776). For Álvares de Azevedo, “Byron, sob seu manto negro de Don Juan, guardava no peito uma chaga dorida e funda” (Álvares de Azevedo 700). In his citation, bracketing and re-working of Byron’s work, Álvares de Azevedo focused on the gloomy, gothic and satanic side of the great English Romantic at the expense of that lighter side which had attracted Argentine readers.

Bolívar and Byron

Simón Bolívar never met Lord Byron but there were enough similarities in their lives to justify comparison. Their dates almost overlap—their respective birth-dates differing by five years (Bolívar was the older) and their deaths by just six years (Byron died in 1824, Bolívar in 1830)—and both were seen by their contemporaries as great men of their time. Unlike Byron, who gained his fame as one of the leading lights of English Romanticism, Bolívar forged his career as a soldier and a politician, and he single-handedly liberated half of the Sub-Continent of South America. In 1815, he published La carta de Jamaica (The Jamaican Letter) which eloquently made the case for Spanish America’s Independence from Spain. In the summer of 1816, Bolívar declared the freedom of slaves in the Americas (Lynch 109). The Congress of Angostura held in February 1819 solidified Bolívar’s place as supreme leader of the new Republic of Venezuela (Bushnell, Simón Bolívar 96), while his decisive victory against Spain’s royalist troops at Boyacá in August 1819 led to the Independence of New Granada and the creation of Colombia (Bushnell, Simón Bolívar 108–11). Bolívar was committed to the independence as well as union of the newly-formed states of Spanish America, and—while it was still unpopular to do so in many parts of the Sub-Continent—he was unconditionally opposed to the existence of slavery and racism in the New World. He explicitly rejected the use of race as a divide among the different populations from which he sought to forge one unified nation (see Aguilar Rivera). But for all his idealism, Bolívar was a pragmatist, and he knew his dreams would be hard to achieve. As he pointed out in La carta de Jamaica: ‘No somos indios ni europeos, sino una especie media entre los legítimos propietarios del país y los usrpadores españoles; en suma, siendo nosotros amerianos por nacimiento y nuestros derechos los de Europa, tenemos que disputar éstos a los del país y que mantenernos en él contra la invasión de los invasores; así nos hallamos en el caso más extroardinario y complicado. (Bolívar 46) ’ Self-determination and a mixed population went hand in glove in Bolívar’s proposed blueprint for an independent and free nation. The great Venezuelan leader “proposed a unitary state, with a life-president and a system of indirect election of some officials,” characterized by a “moral power” which would be exercised by censors who would “oversee the operation of the school system, the behavior of individuals, the protection of the constitution, and the rights of the people” (Fitzgerald 8). One striking feature of Bolívar’s proposed system was that he “felt that England should ally itself with the Spanish-American countries” (Fitzgerald 8). Indeed, it was no secret that Bolívar admired British parliamentarianism (Bushnell, “Introduction” xlii), and this would have caught the eye of a Member of the House of Lords, as Byron was at this time. Indeed, from a young age, Byron had been intent on a career in politics with poetry initially being only a secondary interest. In the first speech he gave to the House of Lords, in 1812, he expressed his opposition to the heavy hand of social control by arguing against the bill calling for the punishment by death of “Luddites” who were destroying industrial machinery; his belief in freedom even at the expense of the authority of the State and the Church was unusual for the time.

Perhaps even more significant, Bolívar and Byron could both trace back their political awakening to an admiration of Napoleon Bonaparte. It was during the period 1804–1806 that Bolívar, living in Europe at the time, experienced a political awakening that was caused by Napoleon’s ascension to power (Lynch 24–25; 44–45).

Bushnell notes that Bolívar was “captivated by, and frankly admired, the cult of glory that was so important a trait of the French leader and that Bolívar would not hesitate to imitate in due course” (Bushnell, Simón Bolívar 11).

Byron, for his part, had depicted Napoleon as an iconic figure in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:

There is a very life in our despair,
Vitality of poison – a quick root
Which feeds these deadly branches; for it were
As nothing did we die; but Life will suit
Itself to Sorrow’s most detested fruit,
Like to the apples on the Dead Sea’s shore,
All ashes to the taste.
(Canto III, Stanza XXXIV, lines 1–7; Hartley Coleridge 190)

The figure of Napoleon here—as one critic has noted, “extreme in both grandeur and misery” (Blackstone 187)—is fused with the poem’s narrator, for the despair oozing from his is “our” despair. Byron sympathized with Napoleon as the tragic hero and saw in him a version of the complicated syntax of his own life.

As his biographer Bernard Blackstone points outs, Byron, by the end of 1819—that is, precisely when Bolívar’s star was rising in the New World—was growing tired of his life in Europe (“an outworn portion of the globe,” as he called it), and, by October 1819, he was actively making plans to emigrate to Venezuela (Blackstone 308). As Byron wrote in a letter to John Cam Hobhouse from Venice, dated October 3, 1819: ‘My South American project, of which I believe I spoke to you (as you mention it)—was this. I perceived by the enclosed paragraphs [newspaper cuttings] that advantageous offers were—or are to be held out to settlers in the Venezuela territory. My affairs in England are nearly settled or in prospect of settlement; in Italy I have no debts, and I could leave it when I choose. The Anglo-Americans are a little too coarse for me, and their climate too cold, and I should prefer the others. I could soon grapple with the Spanish language. Ellice or others would get me letters to Bolivar and his government, and if men of little, or no property are encouraged there, surely with present income, and—if I could sell Rochdale—with some capital, I might be suffered as a landholder there, or at least a tenant, and if possible, and legal—a Citizen. I wish you would speak to Perry of the M[orning] C[hronicle]—who is their Gazetteer—about this, and ask like Jeremy Diddler—not for eighteen pence—but information on the subject. I assure you that I am very serious in the idea, and that the notion has been about me for a long time, as you will see by the worn state of the advertisement. I should go there with my natural daughter, Allegra—now nearly three years old, and with me here,—and pitch my tent for good and all. (Howarth 275–76)’ Byron was clearly excited by the news arriving from the New World about Bolívar’s adventures, and it is fitting, therefore, that he should have named an instrument of his own adventures after the great Venezuelan. In January 1822, Byron found himself in northern Italy with a fellow Englishman, Shelley, and they decided that they would each buy a boat to entertain themselves in between writing their poetic works.

Byron was working on Don Juan at this time.

Ernest Hartley Coleridge takes up the story for us: ‘At the beginning of the New Year, Byron and Shelley turned their thoughts to the sea. Two of the Pisa friends, Trelawny and Williams, were accomplished seamen, and, acting on their advice and recommendation, Byron commissioned a certain Captain Roberts, who was an authority on boat-building, to build an open boat for Shelley, and large decked one for his own use. In due course, a schooner, the Bolivar, was built for Byron, and Shelley was provided with a boat thirty feet long, which Trelawny christened Don Juan, but the owner insisted on re-naming the Ariel. To be near, Shelley had taken a villa on the Gulf of Spezia. (Hartley Coleridge xlvi)’ In January 1822—when Byron named his boat after Bolívar—the Venezuelan was already planning his next decisive attack on Quito (Bushnell, Simón Bolívar 124–26), from where, once consolidated, he would then strike at the heart of Spain’s control-post in Latin America, Lima.

In July 1822 Bolívar had met with the other great Liberator of Spanish America, José de San Martín, and had in effect banished him from future influence in the liberation of Spanish America (Lynch 172–75). And, then, on December 1824 Bolívar’s troops, at the Battle of Ayacucho, in Peru’s principal Andean city, had defeated Spain’s royalist army, leading to the unconditional surrender of all of Spain’s forces in Peru and Upper Peru, and thereby made Spanish America free from Spain’s control (Lynch 193–95). In August 1825 a new country was created, and named after Bolívar, Bolivia (Lynch 198–200…

Byron had expressed admiration for other freedom causes in the past—he once sympathized with France’s cause, as expressed in Napoleon Bonaparte’s ambitions, as mentioned above, and he had expressed support for Italian freedom by supporting the Carbonari (Blackstone 309)—but it was Bolívar’s fight for independence, its temerity and the seeming hopelessness of the quest, that struck a chord in Byron’s soul.

Byron’s decision to buy a boat along with Shelley was, as it turned out, an ill-fated event—on July 7, 1822 Shelley drowned in a tragic accident while sailing in the Ariel with Williams in the Gulf of Spezia. The bodies of Shelley and Williams were discovered not far from the beach at Viareggio, and Byron and his companion, Leigh Hunt, decided to conduct a proper funeral for them on the lake-shore (Hartley Coleridge xlvi–xlvii). As Byron wrote in a letter to Moore dated August 27, 1822: ‘We have been burning the bodies of Shelley and Williams on the sea-shore, to render them fit for removal and regular interment. You can have no idea what an extraordinary effect such a funeral pile has on a desolate shore, with mountains in the back-ground and the sea before, and the singular appearance the salt and frankincense gave to the flame. All of Shelley was consumed except his heart, which would not take the flame, and is now preserved in spirits of wine. (Barzun 235)’ Byron even swam out to see his own boat, the Bolivar, which was moored nearby to the beach while Shelley’s body was being consumed by the flames: “The other day at Viareggio, I thought proper to swim off to my schooner (the Bolivar) in the offing, and thence to shore again—about three miles, or better, in all” (Barzun 234). Byron appears to have experienced extreme and contradictory emotions as a result of Shelley’s untimely death, and, perhaps understandably, Shelley became something of a “troubling presence” in the collection of poems Byron was composing at that time, Don Juan (Bloom 24).

It is surely no coincidence that Byron decided—just fourteen months after naming his boat the Bolivar—to embrace the cause of Greek Independence and journey to Greece in order to save it from tyranny. Byron had been contacted by the “Greek Committee,” based in London and consisting of Jeremy Bentham, Lord Erskine, Sir James Mackintosh, and J.C. Hobhouse, and unanimously made a member of that committee which was fighting on behalf of Greece’s Independence.

For a discussion of the connections between Bentham and Bolívar, see Hart 336.

The vote occurred on March 14, 1822, and, as Byron suggested to Thomas Moore in a letter dated August 27, 1822: “I had, and still have, thoughts of South America, but am fluctuating between it and Greece. I should have gone, long ago, to one of them, but for my liaison with the Countess G.; for love, in these days, is little compatible with glory” (Barzun). The important point to be drawn from this extract is that Byron saw South America and Greece, in the summer of 1822, as offering alternative routes to a similar end.

By the end of the summer, as he told Trelawny, Byron was “at last determined to go to Greece” (Hartley Coleridge li). He subsequently sold the Bolivar and he bought a bigger ship, the Hercules. He then sailed to the west coast of Cephalonia, recruited a small army, and initiated high-level diplomatic negotiations in preparation for an attack on the mainland. As Byron informed J.C. Hobhouse, in a letter dated April 7, 1823, he had “even offered to go up to the Levant in July, if the Greek provisional government think that I could be of any use” (Barzun 240). As he wrote to Augusta Leigh on October 12, 1823: ‘You ask me why I came up amongst the Greeks? It was stated to me that my so doing might tend to their advantage in some measure in their present struggle for independence, both as an individual and as a member for the Committee now in England. How far this may be realized I cannot pretend to anticipate, but I am willing to do what I can. (Barzun 250) ’ It was while Byron was getting ready for the attack that, as so often in his life, he turned to his poetry as an outlet for mulling over his actions. And thus we find that, even while he was bent on liberating Greece, Bolívar was still in his thoughts. Byron began The Age of Bronze in December 1822 and he finished it on January 10, 1823, and in this collection of poems the Liberator is portrayed as a modern-day titan, part of the political thunder and lightning that created freedom in the New World, emerging first in the Northern hemisphere and then spreading to the Sub-Continent:

While Franklin’s quiet memory climbs to Heaven,
Calming the lightning which he hence have riven,
Or drawing from the no less kindled earth
Freedom and peace to that which boasts his birth;
While Washington’s a watchword, such as ne’er
Shall sink while there’s an echo left to air:
While even the Spaniard’s thirst of gold and war
Forgets Pizarro to shout Bolivar!
(The Age of Bronze, Canto V, lines 116–23; Hartley Coleridge 749)

It was this spark of the “good old days,” as Byron goes on to suggest, that was behind the breath of fresh air ushering in freedom in the Atlantic nations:

But ‘twill not be – the spark’s awakened – lo!
The swarthy Spaniard feels his former glow;
The same high spirit which beat back the Moor
Though eight long ages of alternate gore
Revives – and where? In that avenging clime
Where Spain was once synonymous with crime,
Where Cortes’ and Pizarro’s banner flew,
The infant world redeems her name of “New.”
‘Tis the old aspiration breathed afresh,
To kindle souls within degraded flesh,
Such as repulsed the Persian from the shore
Where Greece was - No! she still is Greece once more.
One common cause makes myriads of one breast,
Slaves of the East, or helots of the West:
On Andes’ and on Athos’ peaks unfurled,
The self-same standard streams o’er either world:
The Athenian wears again Harmodius’ sword
The Chili chief abjures his foreign lord;
The Spartan knows himself once more a Greek,
Young Freedom plumes the crest of each cacique;
Debating despots, hemmed on either shore,
Shrink vainly from the roused Atlantic’s roar.
(The Age of Bronze, Canto VI, lines 1–22; Hartley Coleridge 749–50)

The important point here, as far as Byron was concerned, was that the recently founded nations of the New World could breathe new life into the veins of a Europe that was tired (“outworn,” he says), and had lost its way:

But lo! A Congress! What! That hallowed name
Which freed the Atlantic! May we hope the same
For outworn Europe? With the sound arise
Like Samuel’s shade to Saul’s monarchic eyes,
The prophets of young Freedom, summoned far
From climes of Washington and Bolivar.
(The Age of Bronze, Canto VIII, lines 1–6; Hartley Coleridge 751)

Clearly the example of the liberation of the New World was inspirational for Byron in those crucial years from 1819 onwards when he was contemplating how to implement greater freedom in the world. Though Bolívar was not a major figure in Byron’s Don Juan, nevertheless the political rebellion of Peru is recalled: Cadiz is described as the “mart of the colonial trade (…) before Peru learned to rebel” (Don Juan, Canto II, Chapter V; Hartley Coleridge 805).

With the benefit of hindsight we can see Byron’s mission to liberate Greece as doomed from the start, for Byron was attempting to re-create Bolívar’s “criollo”-backed independence movement in a diametrically opposed political environment. Byron’s journey to Greece in 1823 is redolent in a sense of Che Guevara’s ill-fated mission to Bolivia in 1967, which sought to make the Revolution happen in a place it couldn’t happen. As the letters penned during this period demonstrate, Byron was having all sorts of problems in Messalonghi, including dealing with internal dissension among the Greek factions, bouts of illness (apoplexy or epilepsy), enormous debts, earthquakes, and narrow escapes from the Turks (Howarth 456–61). Before he had even mustered sufficient forces to launch an attack on the mainland, Byron was struck down by fever, and he died off the shores of Greece on April 19, 1824. As Hartley Coleridge notes: “The Greeks were heartbroken at the death of their hero” (Hartley Coleridge lv). To this day, Greeks see Byron’s death as a personal tragedy for the Greek nation (Trayiannoudi).

Byron’s relationship with the world outside the British Isles, as portrayed in the excellent two-volume book on The Reception of Byron in Europe (ed. Richard Cardwell), demonstrates how Byronism took on “local colors” in different parts of the world. Our own study of Latin America’s Byron has investigated a similar range of receptivities to Byromania in different countries—ranging from the brooding and dark Byron in Brazil to the ethereal and uplifting one in Argentina—but it has also uncovered something unique about the relationship between Byron and Latin America, namely, that his “light” travelled not, as elsewhere, as if obeying a one-way system but that it produced a “chiaroscuro” effect when it arrived in Latin America. The Latin American prism was suddenly transformed into a mirror capable of bouncing Byron’s light back to its source. Bolívar’s military as well as political successes, as noted above, clearly had an impact on Byron between 1819 and his premature death in 1824; these events persuaded the great English poet to grasp the nettle of the independence movement in Greece, lay down his pen, and take up his sword. It was not all in vain, though, for those “whom the Gods love die young” (Don Juan, Canto IV, Chapter IV; Hartley Coleridge 844).

Works Cited

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1. Byron was subsequently buried in the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. [back]
2. Barton uses this phrase in the context of her discussion of how Barrett Browning was able to “negotiate” the “obliterating glare of Byronic light” (Barton 291), and the same might be argued of Latin America. [back]
3. For a discussion of the central role played by light in English Romanticism see Sandy. [back]
4. Carilla mentions Hugo, Byron, Chateaubriand, Walter Scott, Larra, and Espronceda (Carilla 1: 59). [back]
5. It is also significant that Amalia and Eduardo are described as reading the complete works of Byron (emphasis added): “Eduardo estaba mostrando los grabados que ilustran las obras completas de lord Byron”; Mármol 199). The interest in Byron was clearly not restricted to a few party-pieces. [back]
6. Pedro de Angelis was an Argentine political thinker and author of a number of essays, including La Ciudad Encantada de la Patagonia – La Leyenda de los Cesares (1836). [back]
7. As he wrote to Luis Antônio da Silva Nunes on 27 August 1848: “Has de conhecer a Parisina de Lord Byron. Para mim è uma das coisas mais suavemente escritas desse poeta – de tudo que eu conheço em ingles o mais suave” (Monteiro 48). [back]
8. Bushnell notes that Bolívar was “captivated by, and frankly admired, the cult of glory that was so important a trait of the French leader and that Bolívar would not hesitate to imitate in due course” (Bushnell, Simón Bolívar 11). [back]
9. Byron was working on Don Juan at this time. [back]
10. In July 1822 Bolívar had met with the other great Liberator of Spanish America, José de San Martín, and had in effect banished him from future influence in the liberation of Spanish America (Lynch 172–75). And, then, on December 1824 Bolívar’s troops, at the Battle of Ayacucho, in Peru’s principal Andean city, had defeated Spain’s royalist army, leading to the unconditional surrender of all of Spain’s forces in Peru and Upper Peru, and thereby made Spanish America free from Spain’s control (Lynch 193–95). In August 1825 a new country was created, and named after Bolívar, Bolivia (Lynch 198–200). [back]
11. For a discussion of the connections between Bentham and Bolívar, see Hart 336. [back]