• The Byronic Revolution of Che Guevara

    Ed Simon on the Lives and Legacies of Two Icons of Romanticism and Rebellion

    Ernesto “Che” Guevera’s inventory of possessions upon his capture by Bolivian Special Forces on October 7, 1967—several maps of Vallegrande (hand-drawn, color pencil), twelve rolls of film (undeveloped), a two-way radio (broken), a notebook filled with coded missives (indecipherable), and a green-jacketed journal filled with poetry in his small, meticulous handwriting.

    Encrusted with filth, though not lacking electric handsomeness and magnetic charm, Che was imprisoned in a dilapidated schoolhouse in the fetid highlands. The commanding officers were unnerved by the El Cuaderno Verde, Che’s diary purchased five years earlier in Tanzania, where he had also been involved in organizing leftist guerillas (alongside stints in Algeria and the Congo). “Have no pity on me, ashen light,” read one passage, “Give me your dark host, your last loaf of bread.” A poem by the Spaniard León Felipe. There were dozens of others, from César Vallejo, Nicolás Guillén, and Pablo Neruda. Langley scrutinized the notebook for codes and ciphers, yet this was only a commonplace book kept while encamped with the National Liberation Army.

    A revolutionary who loves poetry and a poet who loves revolution are not so dissimilar.

    Even while nothing Che penned equaled Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, the militant still considered poetry to be the “most sacred” of vocations. “We shall have victory or shoot past death,” Che wrote in one of his own. Pathos in this, for even his executioners accounted that when it was time for him to be killed, he shouted at the nervous gunman “Shoot, coward! You are only going to kill a man!”

    Beyond ideology, beyond the conflicted legacy, it’s difficult not to admire such bravery, such poetic insolence. And Che was right, he was but a man, but the idea he represented is enduring, and much older than him. A verse that had been uttered before, by another dead revolutionary, when Lord Byron began his satirical picaresque Don Juan with a simple line—“I want a Hero.”

    “Mad, bad and dangerous to know”—Byron’s sometimes-lover Lady Caroline Lamb’s appraisal is the one thing that everyone knows about him, so much so that I debated whether it worthy to quote her yet again. Undeniable, however, that it summarizes Byron’s reputation as an unrepentant antinomian. A partisan of irrationality and nature. One conversant with passion and the sublime. The strong-jawed, cleft-chinned, black-curled bard who intoned in his Hebrew Melodies of 1814 that “She walks in beauty, like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies.”

    A poet who claimed that he awoke one day famous after the publication of his 1812 Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a man who was lusted after by both women and men and lusted in return. The vampiric aesthete, elegant raconteur, cosmopolitan libertine—the first rock star. Regardless of this cartoon that has endured for two centuries, the poet’s erotics were never far from his politics, for like his fellow Romantics living in the shadow of the great tumult of the age—he was born George Gordon only a year after the French Revolution began—Byron’s dedication was to the liberation of humanity.

    In Parliament he made speeches in defense of the Luddites, Catholic emancipation, and Irish home rule. Even a generation after the Reign of Terror, Byron enthused about the Jacobins; George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte were political heroes, as was the South American revolutionary Simon Bolivar, who gained independence for six countries from Spanish imperialism, and lent his name to both Byron’s Mediterranean boat and the country where Che would eventually be martyred. “Freedom and peace to that which boasts his birth…to shout Bolivar!” enthused Byron in his 1822 poem The Age of Bronze.

    So admiring of Bolivar was Byron that the latter considered traveling to Venezuela to fight alongside the revolutionary; perhaps in some parallel universe George Gordon would perish in Bolivia, but as it was the poet would actually die in sundry Missolonghi near the Gulf of Corinth, forever enshrined in Greek national memory not as a poet, but as a patriot.

    Panhellenism was the cause du jour among Regency intellectuals who detested Ottoman colonialism in southeastern Europe while celebrating Greece as the mythic birthplace of Western poetry and politics, those rugged, sea-faring people who supposedly created epic poetry, democracy, and philosophy. So often the locus of colonialism, it can be easy to forget that Europeans themselves were often the victims of that same process, particularly in eastern Europe, the Balkans, and the Peloponnese, variously shunted between the Hapsburgs, the Russian Empire, and the Ottomans.

    Romanticism arguably inculcated nationalism and liberationism as revolutionary movements, a hodgepodge of sentiments that can manifest as either anticolonial leftism or blood-and-soil rightism. Because of Greece’s mythic role in European history, combined with the anti-Islamic animus by which the “West” defined itself, the cause of Athens was, according to many nineteenth-century radicals, the cause of civilization.

    “Members of other oppressed peoples—such as Italians, Poles, and Germans—flocked to join the struggle, seeing in the success of the Greeks a promise of their own future,” writes Mark Mazower in The Greek Revolution: 1821 and the Making of Modern Europe. Even while raising money for Greek independence or stating broad support for its aims was an exercise in English radical chic, it was the itinerant traveler Byron, who’d variously made his home in Venice and Ravenna, who was willing to cross the Aegean and die for Greece.

    The affection for Greece is obvious in Byron’s most canonical of poems. Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage with its resurrectionary invocation of “Fair Greece! sad relic of departed worth!/Immortal, though no more; though fallen, great!” and in Don Juan, where despite the sixteen-thousand lines of ottava rima that includes its titular character bedding, among others, a wife of the Turkish sultan and Czarina Catharine the Great, still has time to conjure the…

    isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
    Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
    Where grew the arts of war and peace,
    Where Delos rose, and Phoebus sprung!”

    The exoticizing isn’t exactly subtle, with the poet drawn to not just Greece, but Albania, Armenia, and Italy, conjuring a lush, fecund, sensual east in poems like The Giaour, The Bride of Abydos, The Corsair, and Lara. “The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world,” writes postcolonial theorist Edward Said in his classic 1978 work Orientalism, “but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.”

    Certainly this is a fair appraisal of Byron’s treatment of not just the oppressive Ottomans but of those whom they oppressed, the poet projecting his eastern fantasies of harem girls and hashish, reclining brown-eyed beauties and catamite servants, onto the actual world. One need only look at Thomas Phillips’ 1813 portrait Lord Byron in Albanian Dress appearing like a mustachioed Cary Grant in red-jacketed gold-thread embroidered waistcoat and pasha cap to understand that this was indeed a theatrical stage.

    Had Byron not been so committed to the cause for which he gave his life this all would be less forgivable, but he donated almost all of his once considerable wealth to Greek Independence, successfully working to unite partisans led by Alexandros Mavrokordatos and Odysseas Androutsos, raising and training his own brigade, and effectively founding the national navy, all before catching a fever in February of 1824 while preparing for an assault on Lepanto and succumbing to the illness two months later.

    Seven years after Byron’s death, Thomas Babington Macaulay in The Edinburgh Review described the archetypal Byronic Hero as being a “man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” This is, fairly recognizably, also a portrait of the creator of the Byronic Hero, and though nothing in the poet’s Greek campaign does anything to invalidate that definition, it does make the character more subtle. More than a Byronic Hero, the lord was an anticolonial poet-warrior.

    Arguably there is no Che without Byron, for the latter was the first of this archetype, the dashing hero who traipses the globe on behalf of liberation, emancipation, revolution. Byron’s performance of the evocative international freedom fighter, who has sacrificed the comforts of home for the liberation of a foreign land, can be seen in Giuseppe Garibaldi volunteering for the Union in the Civil War, in George Orwell fighting against Franco in Catalonia, or the twenty-thousand foreigners representing over fifty countries who have currently enlisted in the Ukrainian Foreign Legion.

    Historian Nir Airelli in From Byron to bin Laden: A History of Foreign War Volunteers writes that “Much like the foreign heroes of the American Revolution, the figure of Lord Byron served as a model for future generations of foreign volunteers,” so that by the time young men from the Bronx to the Bay area were enlisting in groups like the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, “Byron was hailed as the starting point of a glorious tradition, which the men…continued and enlarged.”

    When it comes to the cause of freedom—any freedom—we want our heroes and the canniest poets oblige.

    Certainly obvious in the example of Che, for superficial differences of ideology and nationality aside, whether an Argentinean physician or an Anglo-Scottish aristocrat, a Marxist-Leninist ideologue or a Romantic poet, both were committed to fighting in a cause bigger than themselves, willing to die for a country not their own. And, more importantly, both men became symbols of anticolonial resistance, the myths constructed from their actual lives as potent as any poem.

    Just as Alberto Koda’s iconic 1960 photograph of Che Guerrillero Heroico, later stylized into abstraction as a poster by Jim Fitzpatrick, appears tattooed on bodies and screen-printed on t-shirts, graffitied on walls and incongruously emblazoned in advertisements, from Mexico City barrios to Berkeley dorm rooms, Belfast murals to Milan runways, so too did the innate sexiness of Lord Byron make him the equivalent of a rock star.

    If Che was defined by the black trusses and the scraggly beard, the olive fatigues and the black leather combat boots, then the more effete Byron’s image was just as potent, with prints of the poet popular circulated in Athens and Sarajevo, Tirana and Yerevan. Byron was an icon in eastern Europe, far more respected there than in his native land.

    Historically, in this region, writes Jacob Mikanowski in Goodbye, Eastern Europe: An Intimate History of a Divided Land, “Bards were more than poets. They were martyrs and saints on whose shoulders rested all the aspirations of the tribe,” a vocation for Romantic nationalists. During the nineteenth century, “Lord Byron, as both a poet and a man of action, served as the main inspiration.”

    Mikanowski names a number of poet-warriors who consciously imitated Byron, including Adam Mickiewicz in Poland, Petar II Petrovic-Njegos in Montenegro, Karl Macha in Czechia, France Peseren in Slovenia, Mihai Eminescu in Romania, Sandor Petofi in Hungary, Hristo Botev in Bulgaria, and Taras Shevchenko in Ukraine. “Fight—and you’ll be victorious,” writes Shevchenko in an 1845 poem, for “On your side is justice, on your side is glory,/And holy liberty!” to which one imagines Byron would have concurred.

    Ultimately, a revolutionary who loves poetry and a poet who loves revolution are not so dissimilar. Beyond mere ideology, revolution becomes a form of poetry. “In its bare reality, decolonization reeks of red-hot cannonballs and bloody knives,” wrote Frantz Fanon in his 1961 Wretched of the Earth. “For the last can be the first only after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists,” a reality Byron intuited when he traded his pen for a rifle. For all the thousands of lines he penned, Byron’s greatest poetic creation was himself.

    This is how he is remembered in Greece, where a monument marks his death place, he appears on the stamps, the masculine name “Vyronas” is still popular, and the ambassador to the Court of St. James will lay a wreath for him at Trinity College, Cambridge. Poetry and revolution apotheosized George Gordon, as in Joseph Denis Odevaere’s painting Lord Byron on His Deathbed, laurel branched and draped in white, his shirtless corpse prefiguring the photograph of Che’s dead-body. Both, obviously, also evoke the pieta.

    The warrior-poet may have been made modern by Byron, but it has ancient, mythic connotations, for memory is far more powerful than mere analysis. In the hours after his execution, nurses collected snips of Che Guevera’s hair to be distributed to the faithful; a generation later, campesinos in Bolivia had sanctified him as “San Ernesto de La Higuera,” a folk saint for the impoverished and downtrodden.

    After his death, Byron’s lung and larynx were entombed in Missolonghi as relics, appropriate organs of breath and voice. Whatever their personal realities, whether Che’s brutality or Byron’s impropriety, it’s the symbol that matters, the face spraypainted on a wall, the lung in a reliquary. “Seek out—less often sought than found,” wrote Byron in his last lyric, penned a month before he took ill. “A Soldier’s Grave, for thee the best; / Then look around, and choose thy Ground, / And take thy rest.”

    When it comes to the cause of freedom—any freedom—we want our heroes and the canniest poets oblige, sometimes even penning that final verse in their own blood.

    Ed Simon
    Ed Simon
    Ed Simon is a staff writer for Lit Hub, the editor of Belt Magazine, and the author of numerous books, including most recently Heaven, Hell and Paradise Lost, Elysium: A Visual History of Angelology, and Relic, part of the Object Lessons series. In the summer of 2024 Melville House will release his Devil's Contract: The History of the Faustian Bargain, the first comprehensive, popular account of that subject.

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