Byron, Shelley, and Now Zelensky

To appreciate the special power of the Ukrainian president, we need to listen closely to his words, and remember the inspiring poets who came before him.

Bust of Byron spliced with Zelensky
Adam Maida / The Atlantic; Ukrainian Presidency / Handout / Anadolu Agency

In the early 19th century, the European world had just defeated an imperialist tyrant, Napoleon Bonaparte, only to find the continent’s recently conquered monarchs quickly back in force. Intent on preventing another Napoleon from emerging on their own turf, the monarchies promptly cracked down on dissidents, on peaceful demonstrations, on the forming of unions, on the oppositional press. Standing up to this suppression and sharing a commitment to liberty were two famous poets, Lord Byron and Percy Bysshe Shelley, celebrated in some circles, a cause for scandal in others. More than anything else, in that moment, they wanted to show how words can change minds. “It is a grand object—the very poetry of politics,” Byron cheered himself on in a journal entry, early in 1821. With Byronic moxie, he also understood the politics of poetry.

We live in different times, but as Russia’s war in Ukraine has shown us, this struggle for self-determination is still present, and the force of words, in a world where we are surrounded by their onrush, has become yet more important. We only have to turn to Volodymyr Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, to see how the poetry of politics lives on.

“The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” This bit of extemporaneous poetry was reported to have been spoken on February 25, 2022, by Zelensky in response to a supposed offer from the American ambassador to shuttle him and his family to safety out of Kyiv. The English translation rocketed around the world, was even printed on Zelensky-syle olive-green T-shirts. The first sentence sounds the alarm in a portentous poetic rhythm (The fight is here). The second sentence repeats the urgency in the same meters, its colloquial turn capturing his gift for performative comedy (I need ammunition, not a ride). “Not a ride” is breezy talk—yet also darkly sardonic. The wording was practically made for Twitter, and the first indication that a special kind of eloquence would become a weapon in this conflict.

The next morning, a Saturday, Zelensky posted a video that stated the case more fully, with no loss of poetic flair or portent:

I am here. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this … That is it. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine.

Catch the succinct, staccato sentences that build with clausal and verbal repetitions, all ready for export. “I am here” is not only a report, but speech activism: This is a president who is present, inspired, determined. The anchoring “I” is no imperial solitary, but representative of a national “we,” a revolutionary rhetoric that Americans can recall from the ringing close of the Declaration of Independence: “With a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.” Zelensky grasps the power of a pileup, the inspiration by repetition that calls everyone into the plural. Audaciously on the streets of Kyiv, from the city’s undisclosed bunkers, on the global airwaves, on the screens of statehouses, he channels Thomas Paine, Winston Churchill, and John F. Kennedy.

And then there is Byron and Shelley. Both of these men also shaped language for memorable circulation, and imagined themselves as potent political actors. From school days on, Shelley was a political activist, a fierce opponent of local tyrannies and, more broadly, the collaboration of king, state, and Church. In the virulent, anti-monarchical “Mask of Anarchy” (written in 1819, not published in his lifetime), he imagined a political orator exhorting the oppressed classes to picture a world unlike theirs, defined by freedom, liberty, dignified labor and honest wages. He framed this imagery with words that took on a life of their own:

Rise like Lions after slumber,
In unvanquishable number!
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few.

Though this projection seems a tad fantastic, even phantasmic, in leaving material chains as so much dreamland, Shelley knew that words could awaken political spirit. His words caught fire, roared, ready to move people in unison with the memorable lilt of meter and alliteration. It is poetry to sing together.

As for Byron, he was always half a politician. He had a hereditary membership in the House of Lords, and was as delighted at the reception of his “maiden speech”—made on February 27, 1812—as he was astonished by the instant celebrity, a few weeks on, of his poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. (“I awoke one morning and found myself famous.”) The carefully rehearsed address to the Lords against the death penalty for the famous Luddites—aggrieved workers who had destroyed the new machinery meant to replace them—had “considerable effect,” recalls his literary agent. This was double fame, and his poetic pursuits took him away from his political ones for the better part of a decade, as he produced one hit after another. As much as his individual works, he produced an idea of the Byronic hero: an icon of oppositional audacity. But, always vibrating with political fiber, Byron became restless with cultural celebrity, restless even with the ease of writing epic poetry.

As Don Juan said of himself, Byron was “born for opposition”—politically wired and committed to the freedom causes of the day, including helping the Italian Carbonari resistance to Austrian imperialism. In a last, self-fashioned chapter of his life, he joined the London Philhellenic Committee, which was raising support, financial and military, for the Greek War of Independence, begun in March 1821 and not concluded until 1832, eight years after his death. “It is necessary, in the present clash of philosophy and tyranny, to throw away the scabbard. I know it is against fearful odds, but the battle must be fought,” he wrote to a friend in August 1822. In July 1823, he engaged the brig Hercules to convey him to Greece, where he arrived on August 3, bringing along his international prestige, his personal fortune (his earnings from his poetry), and military arms. He helped restore the Greek fleet, and assembled and trained an elite corps of Suliote soldiers.

He saw his whole life as leading to this full-throttle commitment. In a poem datelined “Missolonghi, January 22, 1824” and titled “On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Year,” Byron shows his awareness that the first campaign must be an awakening of the spirit to the cause at hand. The outcome, as for Zelensky’s free and independent Ukraine, can’t be known, and Byron, like Zelensky, is willing to die for it.

The Sword the Banner and the Field
        Glory and Greece, around us see!

       The Land of honourable death
Is here—up to the Field! and give
                          Away thy Breath.

Seek out—less often sought than found,
        A Soldier’s Grave—for thee the best,
Then look around, and choose thy ground
                         And take thy Rest

It’s tempting to imagine that Zelensky knew this verse. That is it. That’s all I wanted to tell you. Glory to Ukraine: This is Byron’s determined field of heroism. As it happened, the poet did not die on the field, but succumbed on April 19, 1824, most likely to malaria, an analogue of our own COVID plague, at Missolonghi, a strategically located port and site of repeated battles between the Greeks and the Ottomans. The news ricocheted around the world with an epochal force. The teenage Byronist Alfred Tennyson ran into the woods and etched on sandstone Byron is dead! Byron’s 40-line “On This Day” was, like Zelensky’s rousing rhetoric, broadcast immediately, everywhere.

The public electricity of word power is something that Byron was contemplating a few years before he set off to fight in Greece, when he published the second installment of his wildly successful serial epic Don Juan. Young Juan is less a hero, or even a mysteriously tormented anti-hero, than a lad with a new adventure ever at hand. In one episode (in Canto 2), he washes up, shipwrecked, onto a Greek isle, and becomes the lover of the princess who commands the place while her pirate father is away on business. Canto 3 finds the couple at a lavish festival, the hall swelled with wine, food, music, dancing, and entertainments. Among the performers is a house poet, ready to sing any nation’s honors for hire.

Byron works a surprise turn: This poet issues no hack job but produces a rare lapse into “genius.” By the third stanza the poem veers into a lament for the glory that was Greece and a contempt of its modern decadence under foreign tyranny. This is a famous stanza:

The mountains look on Marathon—
      And Marathon looks on the sea,
And musing there an hour alone,
     I dream’d that Greece might still be free;
For standing on the Persians’ grave,
    I could not deem myself a slave.

Canto 3, in which the court poet sings this song, was first published August 8, 1821, five months after the Greek War had begun. Excerpted and titled by its first line, “The Isles of Greece” was quickly lifted from Don Juan as a rallying anthem for Panhellenists everywhere, and a rousing inspiration for a country so grateful for Byron’s devotion that he still abides there as a national hero, namesake of generations of sons, marker of streets and plazas. That was the acclaim. The first review (in effect) of the song was rendered in Canto 3 itself, by the epic’s narrator just after it concludes.

Thus sung, or would, or could, or should have sung,
      The modern Greek, in tolerable verse;
If not like Orpheus quite, when Greece was young,
     Yet in these times he might have done much worse:
His strain display’d some feeling—right or wrong;
     And feeling, in a poet, is the source
Of others’ feeling; but they are such liars,
    And take all colours—like the hands of dyers.    

Amid the lukewarm notes and contempt of lying for hire, this wryly equivocal review says something genuinely important: Feeling, in a poet, is the source of others’ feeling. Tuned with feeling, a poet’s words (Byron’s in this case) can take possession of other minds, sometimes hearts, and become part of a new understanding. The narrator continues:

But words are things, and a small drop of ink,
      Falling like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
    ’Tis strange, the shortest letter which man uses
Instead of speech, may form a lasting link
    Of ages …

It’s a brilliant rhyme chord, “a drop of ink” to “millions think”—ink smartly infusing think, and then casting a lasting link across time, across nations. I am always amazed by the force of words to create thinking, to change thinking, to join thinkers and listeners, and to become a force in the world.

And so Volodymyr Zelensky—like Byron, a skilled public speaker, a satirist, an entertainer—fulfills one Byronic dream. If Byron was first a poet, then a celebrity, then a political activist in Italy, then a political force in a war of independence in the same time zone as Ukraine, Zelensky brings it all together as the genuine Byronic hero of our times. Here is a celebrity entertainer who played a fictional president on television, then was himself elected president, then in a national crisis used a comedian’s knack for concision and punch to become a leader of consequence, and an international hero.

He has inspired his people and renewed our sense of what national liberty means and why it matters. He has caught our imagination, our mind and heart, as a freedom fighter with a brilliant canniness about how words, pulsed with poetry, can draw thousands, perhaps millions to think about his cause. This is a battle in which Volodymyr Zelensky is willing to take his rest, and for which he has already secured his glory.