"Latin America’s 'Chiaroscuro' Byron" explores the ways in which Latin America and English Romanticism clashed and overlapped during the nineteenth century in their portrayals of Lord Byron. Offering a glimpse into the fervid Byromania spreading among young intellectuals in the Southern Cone, this essay traces how Byronic figures were adopted in Spanish and Portuguese by the novelist José Mármol and by the Brazilian poet Manuel Antônio Álvarez de Azevedo. Ultimately, Byron’s image was viewed in Latin America through a diversifying chiaroscuro effect, in which Argentina’s Byron was luminous and ethereal, but Brazil’s Byron was dark and brooding. But this influence exerted by Byron was not unidirectional. The essay concludes by suggesting ways in which Simón Bólivar served as an inspiration for Lord Byron, modeling both literary freedom and political independence.
Latin America’s “Chiaroscuro” Byron
“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)
1. 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.
2. 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.  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.
3. 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),  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. 
Byron and Mármol
4. 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.  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:
5. 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.  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,  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)
Byron and Álvares de Azevedo
6. 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:
Bolívar and Byron
7. 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:
8. 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).  Byron, for his part, had depicted Napoleon as an iconic figure in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage:
9. 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:
10. 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:
11. 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.  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.
12. 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:
13. 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).
14. 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).
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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
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
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
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
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