‘Words are Things’: Byron’s Fugitive Pieces

Stream: Romanticism
Date: Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Time: 1.30 pm – 3.00 pm

Abstract

Conspicuously little critical attention has been devoted to Byron’s earliest publication, less even to his first collection, Fugitive Pieces (1806), a little book of poems—‘trifles’, as he calls them—written in his teenage years and meant only to be circulated privately among friends. Even for those critics who do not dismiss Fugitive Pieces as simply puerile, the consensus that ‘it did not as yet embody his final thoughts’ (Cochran) leads to the conclusion that Byron’s first books are unmistakeably personal works (McGann), that is to say, works that express a mental interiority in its infancy. While this is doubtlessly true, the material and linguistic dimensions of Byron’s early poetic experiments are at risk of being lost in an overtly biographical reading. Rather than positing Byron’s juvenilia as expressive of a certain character, a stage in his personal development, I want to trace a certain continuity of ideas, specifically regarding the (still embryonic) relationship between ‘thing’ and ‘thought’. ‘Words are things’, says Byron at various points across his oeuvre. In context, and in purely formal terms, ‘things’ mean things that affect other things, and as such acquire a spatio-temporally extensional as well as a relational character. Using Heidegger’s Ding to meditate on the manifold significations of ‘things’ in Byron, I want to suggest that the poet labours through the experience of a loss of material reality to harness the power of words (the strain of his early works attests to this process being laborious), whose point of eruption is subsequently found in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, the poem that made Byron famous—and infamous—in Regency literary circles. The understanding that links things to events, as per Heidegger, is nascent in Byron’s juvenilia, I want to contend. Their temporal character being highlighted in the title Fugitive Pieces (notably present also in Hours of Idleness, Poems on Various Occasions, and, to a lesser degree, also Poems Original and Translated, the books that follow), it is then the loss of love, the loss of place, and eventually the loss of life that frame the finitude of human existence in these poems. Life and death are linked by the human raw material of clay (a metaphor that Byron will find himself returning to in later years), but whereas the former comprises physical intimacy and boyish pleasures, the latter, partly conditioned by hopes for future fame, provokes almost a renunciation of physicality: ‘where earth to earth returns’, only the name remains (in the poem ‘A Fragment’). Death marks the end of existential relationality. The ‘world of the youth of feeling is … fractured’ (McGann), yet it is fractured not only because of a violent cash with his social framework but the haunting presence of things, no less real for their having undergone change, or completely disappeared. Byron’s view is not exclusively nostalgic, nor even entirely retrospective. Inevitably, the things of the past make way for new prospects; in line with the boy’s attention span, especially where his prurient curiosity is concerned, matter turns into the ‘fugitive pieces’, the subject matter, of poetry. Things become words, but this does not indicate a naïve representationalism; words are things in their own right. Byron will later remark about his magnum opus: ‘is it not life, is it not the thing?’

Author

Marc Gotthardt (Presenter), University of Cambridge
I am a first-year PhD student in English at the University of Cambridge, UK, having come here after obtaining an MSc in Enlightenment, Romantic, and Victorian literature from the University of Edinburgh. In researching the literature, particularly the poetry, of the Romantic period, I have always tried to tie up the loose ends of different strands of literature and philosophy, in particular the post-phenomenological philosophies of Heidegger, Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, and others. For my doctoral project, I am specifically drawing on their philosophy of events to read Byron’s longer narrative and dramatic poems along converging lines of temporality and praxis.