By Jason Wilson

Most people ignore that one of the most memorable figures of the English Romantic Movement, Lord Byron, admired and wrote a poem about Latin American’s greatest caudillo: Simón Bolívar. Byron never met Bolívar but read of his exploits in a chronicle by Colonel Hippisley, based on the expedition of five thousand British men who fought in South America with what became known as the Albion Legion

No indexed Byron in John Lynch’s biography of liberator Simón Bolívar and only a paragraph on Bolívar in Fiona MacCarthy’s of Byron. She cites a letter of 1819 where Byron longed to emigrate to Venezuela, admired Bolívar’s style and benevolent dictatorship, deeming him the greatest man in the world. His grasp of South American issues allowed him to dream of escaping Europe: ‘South America. Europe is grown decrepit’. He envisaged South Americans as ‘fresh as their world – and fierce as their earthquakes’. He names another man who embodied these vital qualities: General José Antonio Páez ‘who has proved that my grandfather spoke truth about the Patagonians’. This truth, of course, was to do with those Patagonians being giants, as was Páez, the leader of the tough llanero horsemen compared with Tartars and Mongols, in his revolutionary deeds backing Bolívar. So romantic family links from his seafaring grandfather Commodore John Byron and news from the contemporary liberation wars in Venezuela combined with reading matter such as Col. Gustavus Hippisley’s Narrative of the Expedition to the Rivers Orinoco and Apuré, 1819, about fighting with General Bolivar (without accent throughout), stoked Byron’s imagination. After all, by 1819 some 5,000 English had gone out to fight in South America in what became known as the Albion Legion.

                More time has been spent on Byron’s schooner the Bolivar (without an accent) but not on why he named it. The astonishing happenings when the dashing adventurer and seafarer Edward Trelawny, who designed the schooner and then was made captain, have been well narrated. But what is unclear is who changed its name from the Countess Guiccioli (Byron’s mistress) to the Bolivar. I must assume that it was Byron himself and not Trelawny. As MacCarthy notes, it was a ‘provocative revolutionary name’ for a twenty-two ton, two gun boat. But constant vexations hindered him using his boat in any aggressive capacity. By December 1822 Trelawny had resigned as captain, and by 1823 Byron laid his boat up in Genoa and dismissed the crew. What happened later to the boat has attracted some research, but what matters is that the schooner hardly lived up to its name.

«However, if Humboldt introduced news about wild South American to Europeans, there was little in common between Byron and him as concerns personality or sexuality. Byron was far closer to Bolívar as revolutionary and womanizer.»

               What could Byron have known about Simón Bolívar, even if they never actually met? One link would be the German traveller, polymath and scientist Alexander von Humboldt, who met Bolívar in Paris in 1804 and in Rome in 1805 and complained to his face that South American needed a leader to absorb and direct continental anti-Spanish feelings. Humboldt was the first to bring news back about South America on the brink of revolution, after decades of the Spanish Crown forbidding passports for foreigners. He appeared in Byron’s unfinished Don Juan as the first of travellers but is mocked by his measuring the blue of the sky and not Lady Daphne – ‘Oh Lady Daphne, let me measure you!’(Canto 4, verse 112). Bolívar was such a fan of Humboldt’s that he copied him by trying to climb Chimborazo in the Andes, though Lynch, his biographer, claims that this happened more in his mind than in reality. At that time, Humboldt held the world altitude record for his ascent of Chimborazo with his faithful Aimé Bonpland, higher than any human ever before, even if he couldn’t reach the summit. Anyhow, surviving letters confirm the high esteem Bolívar and Humboldt felt for each other. Humboldt did provoke countless daydreams of getting rich quick in the Americas. A map he had drawn for his travel book, the Relation historique, first volume out in 1814, was usurped by a company wanting to invest in mines. It could be through reading or overhearing about Humboldt that Byron also daydreamed of buying a mine in Chile, Peru or Mexico.

               Humboldt’s travel book was translated from the French by Helen Maria Williams and appeared in seven volumes between 1814 and 1827. Did Byron read this gushy translation? Charles Darwin did and was moved to explore tropical South America by his reading. Helen Maria Williams, an English poetess living in Paris, certainly contributed to romanticizing Humboldt in her translation, moving far from what has been called his ‘curiously flat, scientific’ French. But if Byron did not read him, he would have read reviews in the Edinburgh Review by John Allen and by John Leslie from 1810 onwards. Bolívar was also published in the Edinburgh Review and Byron cut out some of these articles. If not there, hearsay and gossip still ruled. For example, the Sun of Monday the 1st of February 1802 published a note on its first page about Humboldt’s world tour and the dangers he survived of rivers infested with crocodiles, wild Indians, severe storms, marauding negro slaves and earthquakes. Enough there to excite Byron. However, if Humboldt introduced news about wild South American to Europeans, there was little in common between Byron and him as concerns personality or sexuality. Byron was far closer to Bolívar as revolutionary and womanizer.

               Bolívar then becomes a mirror to Byron’s own dreams of action. Byron’s imagination was struck by new Republics that were coming into being, as early as 1810 in Buenos Aires and Caracas. He had visited Portugal and Spain in 1809 and his friend and then foe Southey knew and wrote about Brazil. And then there’s his ‘facetious’ Spanish-named Don Juan, dedicated to Southey, exploring his mocking freedom, perhaps as he noted, being ‘too free for these days’.  So, Byron had some direct experience of the Spanish temper. But he never learnt the language, passed quickly through southern Spain at war. He rode to Seville from Lisbon, as he tells his mother, in four days. It was then run by a revolutionary junta, and he was struck by how free the women were. But most notable about his insights are how he contrasts, as do all travellers, abroad with home. Here, the novelty of Spain and its women with English equivalents. For example,  Admiral Cordova’s daughter, with her long black hair, dark languishing eyes, clear olive complexion and so graceful in motion, makes English lasses drowsy and listless. After marriage, he discovers, these Spanish women are free to pursue pleasure. Spain and South America, then, act as a screen on which to project his rejection of England, English manners, the John Bull stereotype, in favour of Republican freedom and licentiousness. But also, no doubt that the Spanish term guerrilla (little war) began its long history into English as guerrilla fighter, from the Spanish war against Napoleon’s brother Joseph on the throne to the guerrilla war fought by Bolívar en Venezuela in 1819, culminating with Che Guevara. Byron would become and die a guerrilla.

               If Bolívar was a mirror where Byron could see his double and read his future, what did he see? What follows is hard to base on documents, but emerges from some of the enormous bibliography on Bolívar. As Elizabeth Waugh stated, everybody knew about Bolívar’s exploits. Above all, both Byron and Bolívar admired Napoleon. Bolívar’s official portraits are modeled on this look. All three were outsiders who longed to and did snatch power, and also failed. Bolívar, like Lord Byron, was an aristocrat who could trace his family to a Simón Bolívar who went to the Americas at the end of the sixteenth century. On his first trip to Spain in 1799, Bolívar was received by Charles IV at court in Madrid. He remained ‘aristocratic’ and rich, acting arrogantly above the law, as did Byron. Both were romantic men of action, but also, thinkers and writers. Bolívar’s extraordinary tutees – the poet and grammarian Andrés Bello and the Rousseau-devotee Simón Rodríguez – ensured a cool, analytical mind, and, of course, he was a versifier. Both men were also gamblers and womanizers (though there’s no evidence for Bolívar liking boys). After the death of his young bride, Bolívar became notorious for his adulterous affair with Manuela Sáenz (she was a Dr. Thorne’s wife), which has led to countless novels and films. Both were avid swimmers, where swimming can be seen as a form of personal freedom.

But above all else, what drove Bolívar’s patriotism was his ruthless turning to violence and bloodshed, rather than negotiation, to free his country. By 1819 Bolívar’s banner on his bamboo lance read ‘Libertad o Muerte’, a revolutionary cry for equality across race and class and ‘war to the death’. Bolívar twice visited London, met the Marquis of Wellesley, Lord Canning and Lord Castlereagh and many others, and won the backing of Burke for South American emancipation. Where he stayed – 27 Grafton Street – has its blue plaque. What matters, though, is not a potted biography, but how Bolívar was received by Byron. They never met, though they shared possible contacts. Bolívar, with negro-slave and Indian blood, epitomized Romantic impulse and daredevil bravery. Byron saw himself reflected in this aristocratic South American revolutionary, with a sharp mind (Bolívar was born in 1788, five years before Byron).  That later Bolívar became a despot in his frustration to create a Pan American Union and that his shattered revolutionary dream was the root of his last letter in 1830 and most famous saying –‘America is ungovernable. He who serves a revolution, ploughs the sea’ – only serve to highlight Byron’s later failure and death by fever at Missolonghi. Byron, who died in 1824, six years before Bolívar’s miserable death – so vividly novelized by Gabriel García Márquez in The General in his Labyrinth –, could not know how he, like Bolívar, lived and suffered an archetype of the professional revolutionary.

«But also, no doubt that the Spanish term guerrilla (little war) began its long history into English as guerrilla fighter, from the Spanish war against Napoleon’s brother Joseph on the throne to the guerrilla war fought by Bolívar en Venezuela in 1819, culminating with Che Guevara. Byron would become and die a guerrilla

               The notion of a literary / historical archetype depends on a series of factors, some of them already touched on. Certainly, the necessary violence of a revolution implies its possible sudden reversal (as does its etymology), as happened to many revolutionaries in France. One moment in power, like Robespierre, then next the guillotine. There is nemesis at work, some breaking of social and political harmony. The best way to view these repeating patterns is to view Byron’s and Bolívar’s destinies through that of a later guerrilla fighter, Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara. A linking detail is biographer Jon Lee Anderson’s description of Che’s austere rooftop office in Havana, with its small bronze statue of Bolívar. They share the same hubris and nemesis, the same dangerous revolutionary purity and violence, the same extra-territorial ambitions – Guevara became Che in Cuba and died in Bolivia (named after Bolívar) – the same grooming of a Romantic image – Che on his death bed re-arranged to look like Christ – the same action-dreams of innumerable fans, with sexy posters on walls and the same blend of poet, womanizer and man of action. Che famously went to battle in the Sierra Nevada of eastern Cuba, with a book of Pablo Neruda’s poems in his back pocket. You could say that Che Guevara was Byronic. Many critics and biographers have noted this resemblance. The three men sought freedom now, and failed. Linking the thinking, actions and dreams of these three allows me to posit an archetype, especially in the minds of their followers where heroic failure keeps the myth alive.

               If Bolívar was a momentary mirror for Byron as he prepared his own impulsive life of action, Bolívar also entered the political doggerel of The Age of Bronze or Carmen Seculare et Annus Haud Mirabilis, published in 1823 and sold out in a week. In that poem, Byron sought the new Sesostris, perhaps himself, a champion and child, wise and wild. Though a biting satire on the Congress of Verona of late 1822, Bolivar (without accent) appeared as a rhyme with ‘war’: «While even the Spaniard’s thirst for gold and war / Forgets Pizarro to shout Bolivar«. The Bolivar / war rhyme is visually striking, if not clear how to voice. However, at that time the Spaniards of the New World were awakening in that ‘avenging clime’ where Spain was synonymous with crime, represented by Cortes and Pizarro. Lead by Bolívar that ‘infant world redeems her name of “New’’, and now ‘kindles souls’ (like Byron’s). What’s crucial is that Byron linked South America’s new revolutionary and republican destiny with Greece’s: “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 Athos’ peaks unfurl’d, / 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, hemm’d on either shore«.

Newly liberated South America, led by General Bolívar criss-crossing the Andes, showed Greece and Byron the way. By 1823 when he wrote his eighteen-canto poem, Bolívar had almost triumphed and ‘Freedom dates her birth’. The year of Byron’s death, 1824, was also the year of the final battle of Ayacucho where General Antonio José de Sucre, Bolívar’s best general, defeated the Spaniards, heralding the free South American republics. In the poem, Spain is also expelling Joseph Napoleon and thanks to «the wild sierra, with its wilder troop / Of vulture-plumed guerrillas, on the stoop / For their incessant prey…’ (hasty rhyme), but it’s the sense that  matters. How ironic, too, given the secret archetype, that defies lineal history, where Byron, Bolívar and Guevara are one, that Byron mentions ‘sierra’ and ‘guerrilla«, words that echo in twentieth-century political mythology and still act on naive minds. Canto VIII calls up Bolívar once again, for the last time: «The prophets of young Freedom, summon’d far / From climes of Washington and Bolivar«. No doubt, that Bolívar stimulated Byron into revolutionary action to ‘free Greece’ around the year 1819, but then fades from Byron’s writings.

The Bolívar Byron link, leaping into the future with Che Guevara, also hints at a more political Byron, defender of Luddites and admirer of Saint-Just, and guerrilla fighter. Robert Escarpit revived a more political poet, with less on his complex love affairs dear to so many biographies. He called The Age of Bronze a long invective, an impressive summary of revolutionary activities and a lucid analysis of guerilla war. Reading Che Guevara’s acts and works back into Byron’s admiration for Bolívar’s professional guerrilla activities allows us to grasp a politicized Byron behind the icon of Romantic man of action.  Impatience, impulsiveness and danger combined in all three, hence the archetype, to eliminate the thinker, the poet, the boudoir boaster. Last link is what Enrique Krauze called the ‘almost religious devotion to violence and death’ (my italics) as cleansing and giving a purpose to a previous aimless life. Ideas were tested against sacrifice and death. Krauze summarized Guevara’s dangerous message: ‘War … was another form of poetry’. Guevara’s last letter to his parents defined his acts: ‘Many will call me an adventurer, and I am, but of a different type, of those who put their lives on the line to demonstrate their truths’. The type he referred to included Bolívar and Byron. That was the new poetry that Byron also sought as a guerrilla fighter, «then battle for freedom wherever you can».

Jason Wilson is an Emeritus Professor at University College, London. He has published numerous books, including Octavio Paz. A study of his Poetics (CUP, 1979, into Spanish in 1980, reprinted in 2009) and Octavio Paz (Twayne, 1986), Jorge Luis Borges (Reaktion Books and Chicago University Press, 2006, translated into Portuguese 2009, Chinese, 2011 and Turkish 2011), A Companion to Pablo Neruda. Evaluating the Poetry (Tamesis, 2008 and paperback, 2014), He has edited and translated Alexandre von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent (Penguin Classics, 1995), His most recent publication is Living in the Sound of the Wind. A Personal Quest for W. H. Hudson, Naturalist and Writer from the River Plate (Constable, 2015, paperback 2016, into French 2018 and into Spanish, 2023, with Ateneo). He spends his time between London and Buenos Aires. He is currently writing on how he became a hispanist.