The Poetic Word in Byron, Zaum, and Nabokov—and a Happy Birthday to the Latter

At the climax of the thunderstorm in the alps in  Childe Harold III, Byron/Harold flashes some virtuosic self-aggrandizement:

Could I embody and unbosom now

That which is most within me,—could I wreak

My thoughts upon expression, and thus throw

Soul, heart, mind, passions, feelings, strong or weak,

All that I would have sought, and all I seek,

Bear, know, feel, and yet breathe—into one word,

And that one word were Lightning, I would speak;

But as it is, I live and die unheard,

With a most voiceless thought, sheathing it as a sword. (st. 97)

Byronism was always poised on the brink of self-parody, even if it waited until Don Juan to tumble gleefully over the edge. Here the verse inflates a Wordsworthian sense of psychic geography to alpine magnitude. Yet at its climax, the stanza dismisses the expressive power of its own vehicle—language. Wordsworth, predictably, was not amused by Childe Harold. He held the younger poet’s newfound reverence for nature an affectation, “assumed rather than natural,” and accused Byron of “poaching on my Manor” (3:394). The remark performs a fascinating inversion since, as Tilar Mazzeo notes, “the professional Wordsworth casts himself as the lord of the literary estate and charges the aristocratic Byron with crass appropriations that are figuratively beyond the pale” (144). Beyond the pale is right: poaching had been codified a hanging offense since the Black Act of 1723, which became both model and synecdoche for a “golden and sanguine” legal code that deemed nearly every offense against property a capital crime.

Byron tried to exculpate himself by claiming that Percy Shelley had “dosed him with Wordsworth physic even to nausea” (Medwin 237). In this spirit, let us consider Canto III’s thunderstorm episode a Wordsworth-induced fever that ends in purgation. Byron/Harold begins this “classic piece of rodomontade” (Hodgson 379) by wishing he could “embody” and “unbosom” what lies within him. Even in the prefixes, these verbs do the work of synthesizing and then negating—the former a making and reifying, the latter an unloading, a jettisoning. These nearly contradictory transformations operate on “That which is most within me,” which is then detailed in a parenthetical inventory that ends up spilling out over five lines. This messy catalogue of the interior—thoughts, feelings, desires plus their objects—might seem random and spontaneous, but it lands squarely and deftly within the meter, such that it can be gathered “into one word.”

Or so Byron/Harold wishes. And so he entertains the fantasy of that “one word.” But as often as he claims “words are things,” as much as a “small drop of ink” might make “thousands, perhaps millions, think,” words are not lightning, and the text will not sustain the fantasy even for a stanza (DJ III.88; see Nuss 44ff. on Byron on things). The Wordsworthian bubble bursts: he has only been talking around the “voiceless thought” in a magisterial apophasis, and so, paradoxically, he concludes by saying he will not speak. Wordsworth of course perfected his own apophatic style of unspeaking the depthless self—one need only think of those “beauteous forms” in “Tintern Abbey” which, we are told, “have not been to me / As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye.” In each case, language is spectacularly turned against itself to gesture toward something beyond, something against which language is left wanting.


I want to pick up an echo of Byron’s take on this fantasy of language as lightning in the debates surrounding poetic language in early twentieth-century Russia. My concern is the quest for an autonomous language of pure creation—a language that does not refer, but simply is. This fantasy is at least as old as Genesis (“And God said, Let there be light: and there was light”), but was reinvigorated by Romantic reactions to the Lockean conception of language as a strictly arbitrary yoking of signifier to signified. 1

Here Coleridge intervenes with the concept of the symbol, which “always partakes of the Reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity, of which it is the representative” (6:30). Language rendered symbolically becomes a “living part” of the “whole” to which it refers, and so does not simply point to but generates its referent in some fundamental sense. If the symbol is itself a part of what it depicts, it follows that the referent is incomplete without its corresponding symbol. Things do not become whole until a symbolic language emerges to fulfill their being.

By tying language to the generation of being as such, the symbol performs the Biographia’s definition of imagination as the “repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM” (7:304). Insofar as the symbol partakes of what it represents, it reproduces the act of creation. (How precisely language is supposed to partake of the thing is a question I leave to the side, because I have no idea how it might be answered. But let us remain in the realm of poetic theory.) Humanity is thus connected to divinity through creative language, which is presumably why Coleridge’s formula alludes to the self-referencing God of Exodus: “And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: and he said, Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you” (3:14). This is not God as prime-mover but rather as prime-speaker, defined by his self-annunciation. However, if Moses relays God’s statement verbatim to the children of Israel, he will muddle the referent of “I AM.” If Moses pronounces “I AM hath sent me unto you,” doesn’t the shifter “I” place Moses in God’s place? Has Moses partaken of God in speaking thus? Has Moses, accordingly, sent himself? Is this not what is at stake in the Coleridgean imagination, such that whoever can speak “I AM” finitely partakes of the infinite “I AM”? Byron’s lightning stanza toys with the fantasy of this sort of divine poesis, a poetics in which saying makes being. He fancifully threatens to “embody” and “unbosom” what is within him—if not for the limits of earthly language. But Byron was no Moses. He knew he was marked—and marked himself—for Cain’s part.


Without disregarding the profound and even shocking innovations of Romantic poetic practice, I would suggest that the full ramifications of Romantic poetic theory remained unrealized until the twentieth century. While many modernisms arrayed themselves against an inherited Romantic-Victorian tradition, I believe that much modernist experimentation with language should be seen as a reclamation of the kind of inquiry modeled by Coleridgean theory, and hinted at in Byron’s verse. What would it mean to speak lightning?

This is the kind of question the Russian Futurists asked with great earnestness. In particular, the Hylaea group (centered on Velimir Khlebnikov, Aleksey Kruchenykh, and Vladimir Mayakovsky) tasked itself with the reinvention of poetic language. Reified conventional language was deemed obsolete, as was what Kruchenykh derided as “the meaningless pursuit of meaning.” The material of the new poetry was to be language, full stop. What was wanted was not signification, but rather a word “resembling if anything a saw or a savage’s poisoned arrow” (Manifestoes 61). A radical poetry must accordingly reconstruct language at the root, tearing away all the encrustations of deadening convention and Western influence and de-automatizing language into something vital. Amid the manifestoes, performance art, fist fights, and tomato throwing—in other words all the pageantry of the avant-garde—Kruchenykh and Khlebnikov developed the concept of zaum to answer this drive.

Zaum is usually translated as transrationalism but apparently beyond reason is a more literal rendering (I know no Russian). In Kruchenykh’s hands, zaum aspired to pure sound, emotionally laden but essentially beyond meaning. Khlebnikov understood zaum in precisely opposite terms, as a language of pure, unmediated signification. By way of example, one of his projects was to extract from every Russian consonant some definitive idea to which it was originally linked. These links were thought to be remnants of an originary Adamic language of directly meaningful sounds. Accordingly, Khlebnikov’s zaum tried to excavate from modern Russian a lost language of universal, intuitive meaning. 2

A sample from Kruchenykh will demonstrate:

Dyr bul shchyl



vy so bu

r l ez


I am told that this poem is scarcely more comprehensible for a Slavophone, with a few hints of possible prefixes or roots, but no recognizable words. Kruchenykh added inflammation to inscrutability by boasting the poem contained “more of the Russian national spirit than in all of Pushkin” (Manifestoes 60). Yet for all its scandalous extravagance, the Futurist search for the pure poetic word would become the inspiration for the theories of radical poetic autonomy that emerged in Russian Formalism. A notable example is Viktor Shklovsky’s “Art as Technique” (1917), which elaborated the aim of poetic language as defamiliarization. Shklovsky’s essay is a direct descendent of zaum poetics, first insofar as its sense of language itself as the material of poetry is derived from Kruchenykh’s argument that “according to its inner laws… and not according to the rules of logic or grammar” (Manifestoes 72), and second in its desire to dilate and vex perception in order to render perception itself an object of aesthetic reflection. The poetic word does not simply convey meaning, but transforms the very means of perception through which it is apprehended.

The debates surrounding the autonomous poetics imagined by Futurism and theorized by Formalism shaped the nascent career of Vladimir Nabokov, who was born 117 years ago today. While the Futurists sought to dispense with the past, Nabokov was a devotee of literary history—especially Pushkin (whose Byronic Eugene Onegin he would later translate) and by way of Pushkin, Byron. In an early, much neglected story titled “The Word” (“Slovo”), Nabokov, like Byron before him, entertains the fantasy of a language of pure expression.  I have previously discussed this story as a commentary on the act of reading, and I now see it as a more precise historical intervention in the aesthetic theory of Nabokov’s moment, responding to claims like Kruchenykh’s: “it is to the disgrace of those who sincerely appreciate and love the arts that no one has yet pronounced the necessary word” (Manifestoes 69).

The premise of “The Word” is as follows: a man awakes in a world of unbearable synaesthetic beauty—a world he knows to be heaven.

a wind, like the foretaste of a miracle, played in my hair, filled the gorges with a crystal hum, and ruffled the fabled silks of the trees that blossomed amid the cliffs lining the road. Tall grasses lapped at the tree trunks like tongues of fire; large flowers broke smoothly from the glittering branches and, like airborne goblets brimming with sunlight, glided through the air, puffing out their translucent convex petals. Their sweet, damp aroma reminded me of all the finest things I had experienced in my life.

A band of angels soon fly into view, rendered in prose that falls somewhere between the arresting and the absurd: their wings “were all-powerful and soft—tawny, purple, deep blue, velvety black, with fiery dust on the rounded tips of their bowed feathers.” The Byronism “fiery dust” (DJ II.212) which Jerome McGann borrowed for the title of his seminal study, is no coincidence. For the context of the phrase is rooted in Don Juan’s wry consideration of the gulf between the moral abstractions of “Philosophy” and the encumbrances of mortal flesh—formed from matter, soon to burn out. That fiery dust connects Nabokov’s narrator to the angels, and he begs them to give him the word that will redeem his suffering homeland, just as the Futurists sought to overhaul their inherited language in order to renovate the nation. But, resplendent and terribly powerful, the angels have lost all sensibility to human concerns. They ignore his pleas. However, one angel, bearing a fading birthmark that indicates recent arrival in paradise, notices his distress and gives him what he seeks:

Embracing my shoulders for an instant with his dovelike wings, the angel pronounced a single word, and in his voice I recognized all those beloved, those silenced voices. The word he spoke was so marvellous that, with a sigh, I closed my eyes and bowed my head still lower. The fragrance and the melody of the word spread through my veins, rose like a sun within my brain; the countless cavities within my consciousness caught up and repeated its lustrous edenic song. I was filled with it. Like a taut knot, it beat within my temple, its dampness trembled upon my lashes, its sweet chill fanned through my hair, and it poured heavenly warmth over my heart.

This is what the Futurists were seeking: a language that would consume the hearer in rapture, that would reorganize the very synapses of the brain and revolutionize the senses, returning us to a new world. The word is so replete with divine force that it possesses the narrator, invading and seizing his sensorium. Consciousness, with all of its mediation, diffidence, and deferral, collapses into a state of pure immediacy. Thinking ceases. He is filled with the word’s supra-signifying power, and it turns him into a vessel for its own repetition.

I shouted it, I revelled in its every syllable, I violently cast up my eyes, which were filled with the radiant rainbows of joyous tears…. [original ellipsis]

At this moment the narrator awakes: “I remember not what word it was that I shouted.” In one of the few discussions of the story, Brian Boyd suggests that Nabokov “sets the human and the transcendent too starkly together” (203). This is precisely the point. The impossible collision of human and transcendent is the story’s ironic assessment of the quest for the poetic word. The Byronic intertext allows Nabokov to sympathetically dramatize the profound desire for such a word, and to offer a wry commentary on its impossibility. Forgoing any hope of The Word, Nabokov and Byron each set down to work with mere words.

Byron, George Gordon. The Major Works. Ed. Jerome McGann. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. Eds James Engell and Walter Jackson Bate. Vol. 7 of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.

Hodgson, John A. “The Structures of Childe Harold III.” Studies in Romanticism 18.3 (Fall 1979): 363-82.

Janecek, Gerald. Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism. San Diego: San Diego State University Press, 1996.

Lawton, Anna, and Herbert Eagle, eds. Russian Futurism through its Manifestoes, 1912-1928. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988.

Markov, Vladimir. Russian Futurism: A History. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.

Mazzeo, Tilar J. Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007.

Medwin, Thomas. Conversations of Lord Byron. London: Colburn, 1824.

Nabokov, Vladimir. “The Word.” The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. Ed. Dmitri Nabokov. New York: Vintage International, 2008.

Nuss, Melynda. Theatre, Distance, and the Public Voice, 1750-1850. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Selincourt, Ernest de, Mary Moorman, and Alan G. Hill, eds. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth. 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1967-1982.


  1. Bill Keach’s Arbitrary Power, recently republished in paperback, offers the best treatment of romantic engagements with the problem of “arbitrary” language.
  2. Helpful references on this material include Vladimir Markov’s classic Russian Futurism: A History, Russian Futurism through its Manifestoes, 1912-1928 (eds. Lawton and Eagle), Gerald Janecek’s Zaum: The Transrational Poetry of Russian Futurism, and Peter Steiner’s Russian Formalism: A Metapoetics.