Ezra Pound: Poems

London (1908–20)

Introduction to the literary scene

Cino

I have sung women in three cities. But it is all one. I will sing of the sun. ... eh? ... they mostly had grey eyes, But it is all one, I will sing of the sun.

“ ” A Lume Spento (1908)

Pound arrived in Gibraltar on 23 March 1908, where for a few weeks he earned $15 a day working as a guide to American tourists. By the end of April he was in Venice, living over a bakery near the San Vio bridge. In July he self-published his first book of poetry, A Lume Spento (With Tapers Spent); the London Evening Standard called it "wild and haunting stuff, absolutely poetic, original, imaginative, passionate, and spiritual." The title was from the third canto of Dante's Purgatorio, which alluded to the death of Manfred, King of Sicily. The book was dedicated to his friend, the Philadelphia artist William Brooke Smith, who had recently died of tuberculosis.[20]

In August he moved to London, where he lived almost continuously for the next 12 years; he told his university friend William Carlos Williams: "London, deah old Lundon, is the place for poesy." English poets such as Maurice Hewlett, Rudyard Kipling and Alfred Lord Tennyson had made a particular kind of Victorian verse – stirring, pompous and propagandistic – popular with the public. According to modernist scholar James Knapp, Pound rejected the idea of poetry as "versified moral essay"; he wanted to focus on the individual experience; the concrete rather than the abstract.[21]

Arriving in the city with just ₤3, he moved into lodgings at 48 Langham Street, near Great Titchfield Street, a penny bus-ride from the British Museum.[22] The house sat across an alley from the Yorkshire Grey pub, which made an appearance in the Pisan Cantos, "concerning the landlady's doings / with a lodger unnamed / az waz near Gt Titchfield St. next door to the pub".[23] He spent his mornings in the British Museum Reading Room, lunching at the Vienna Café on Oxford Street.[24] He persuaded the bookseller Elkin Mathews to display A Lume Spento, and in October 1908 caught the attention of the literati. That December he published a second collection, A Quinzaine for This Yule. After the death of a lecturer at the Regent Street Polytechnic, he took a position lecturing in the evenings on "The Development of Literature in Southern Europe".[25]

Ford Madox Ford described Pound – somewhat tongue-in-cheek – as "approach[ing] with the step of a dancer, making passes with a cane at an imaginary opponent. Pound was a flamboyant dresser at this stage, and had trousers made of green billiard cloth, a pink coat, a blue shirt, a tie hand-painted by a Japanese friend and an immense sombrero. All this was accompanied by a flaming beard cut to a point and a single, large blue earring."[26]

Meeting Dorothy Shakespear, Personae

In Durance

I am homesick after mine own kind, Oh I know that there are folk about me, friendly faces, But I am homesick after mine own kind.

“ ” Personae (1909), written in Crawfordsville, Indiana, 1907[27]

At a literary salon in January 1909, Pound met the novelist Olivia Shakespear – Yeats' former lover – and was introduced to her daughter Dorothy. They married several years later in 1914. Through Olivia Shakespear he was introduced to W. B. Yeats – the greatest living poet in Pound's view – and they became close friends, although Yeats was older by 20 years. Pound had sent Yeats a copy of A Lume Spento the previous year, before he left for Venice, and Yeats had apparently found it charming.[28]

He was also introduced to sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, painter Wyndham Lewis, and to the cream of London's literary circle, including the poet T. E. Hulme. The American heiress Margaret Lanier Cravens (1881–1912) became a patron; after knowing him a short time she offered a large annual sum to allow him to focus on his work. Cravens killed herself in 1912, probably because Pound's friend the pianist Walter Rummel, long the object of her affection, married someone else. She may also have been discouraged by Pound's engagement to Dorothy.[29]

In June 1909 the Personae collection became Pound's first publication to have any commercial success. It was favorably reviewed; one review said it was "full of human passion and natural magic".[30] Rupert Brooke was unimpressed, complaining that Pound had fallen under the influence of Walt Whitman, writing in "unmetrical sprawling lengths".[31] In September he published 27 poems as Exultations. Around the same time Pound moved into new rooms at Church Walk, off Kensington High Street, where he lived most of the time until 1914.[32]

In June 1910 Pound returned to the United States for eight months; his arrival coincided with the publication of his first book of literary criticism, The Spirit of Romance, based on his lecture notes at the polytechnic.[33] His essays on America were written during this period. They were compiled as Patria Mia and not published until 1950. He loved New York but felt the city was threatened by commercialism and vulgarity, and no longer felt at home there.[34] He found the New York Public Library, then being built, especially offensive. According to Paul L. Montgomery, Pound visited the architects' offices almost every day to shout at them.[35]

Pound persuaded his parents to finance his passage back to Europe.[36] It was nearly 30 years before he visited the United States again. On 22 February 1911 he sailed from New York on the R.M.S. Mauretania, arriving in Southampton six days later.[37] After only a few days in London he went to Paris, where he worked on a new collection of poetry, Canzoni (1911), panned by the Westminster Gazette as a "medley of pretension". When he returned to London in August 1911, A. R. Orage, editor of the socialist journal The New Age, hired him to write a weekly column, giving him a steady income.[38]

Imagism

Hilda Doolittle arrived in London from Philadelphia in May 1911 with the poet Frances Gregg and Gregg's mother; when they returned in September Doolittle decided to stay on. Pound introduced her to his friends, including the poet Richard Aldington, whom she would marry in 1913. Before that the three of them lived in Church Walk, Kensington – Pound at no. 10, Doolittle at no. 6, and Aldington at no. 8 – and worked daily in the British Museum Reading Room.[39]

At the museum Pound met regularly with the curator and poet Laurence Binyon, who introduced him to the East Asian artistic and literary concepts that would become so vital to the imagery and technique of his later poetry. The museum's visitors' books show that Pound was often found during 1912 and 1913 in the Print Room examining Japanese ukiyo-e, some inscribed with traditional Japanese tanka verse, a 10th-century genre of poetry whose economy and strict conventions undoubtedly contributed to Imagist techniques of composition.[40][41] He was working at the time on the poems that became Ripostes (1912), trying to move away from his earlier work; he wrote that the "stilted language" of Canzoni had reduced Ford Madox Ford to rolling on the floor with laughter.[42] He realized with his translation work that the problem lay not in his knowledge of the other languages, but in his use of English:

What obfuscated me was not the Italian but the crust of dead English, the sediment present in my own available vocabulary ... You can't go round this sort of thing. It takes six or eight years to get educated in one's art, and another ten to get rid of that education.

Neither can anyone learn English, one can only learn a series of Englishes. Rossetti made his own language. I hadn't in 1910 made a language, I don't mean a language to use, but even a language to think in.[43]

While living at Church Walk in 1912, Pound, Aldington and Doolittle started working on ideas about language. It was in the British Museum tearoom one afternoon that they decided to begin a 'movement' in poetry, called Imagism. Imagisme, Pound would write in Riposte, is "concerned solely with language and presentation".[44] The aim was clarity: a fight against abstraction, romanticism, rhetoric, inversion of word order, and over-use of adjectives. They agreed in the spring or early summer of 1912 on three principles:

1. Direct treatment of the "thing" whether subjective or objective.

2. To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.

3. As regarding rhythm: to compose in the sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.[45]

Superfluous words, particularly adjectives, should be avoided, as well as expressions like "dim lands of peace", which Pound thought dulled the image by mixing the abstract with the concrete. He wrote that the natural object was always the "adequate symbol". Poets should "go in fear of abstractions", and should not re-tell in mediocre verse what has already been told in good prose.[45]

In a Station of the Metro

The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet, black bough.

“ ” Poetry (1913)

A typical example is Pound's "In a Station of the Metro" (1913), inspired by an experience on the Paris Underground, about which he wrote, "I got out of a train at, I think, La Concorde, and in the jostle I saw a beautiful face, and then, turning suddenly, another and another, and then a beautiful child's face, and then another beautiful face. All that day I tried to find words for what this made me feel." He worked on the poem for a year, reducing it to its essence in the style of a Japanese haiku.[46] Like other modernist artists of the period, Pound found inspiration in Japanese art, but the aim was to re-make – or as Pound said, "make it new" – and blend cultural styles instead of copying directly or slavishly. He may have been inspired by a Suzuki Harunobu print he almost certainly saw in the British Library (Richard Aldington mentions the specific prints he matched to verse), and probably attempted to write haiku-like verse during this period.[41]

Ripostes and translations

Ripostes, published in October 1912, marks Pound's move toward more minimalist language. Michael Alexander describes the poems as showing a greater concentration of meaning and economy of rhythm than his earlier work. It was published when Pound had only begun his move toward Imagism; his first use of the word Imagiste appears in his prefatory note to the volume.[47] The collection includes five poems by Hulme and a translation of the 8th-century Old English poem The Seafarer – although not a literal translation. It upset scholars, as would Pound's other translations from Latin, Italian, French and Chinese, either because of errors or because he lacked familiarity with the cultural context. Alexander writes that in some circles Pound's translations made him more unpopular than the treason charge, and the reaction to The Seafarer was a rehearsal for the negative response to Homage to Sextus Propertius in 1919.[48] His translation from the Italian of Sonnets and ballate of Guido Cavalcanti was also published in 1912.[49]

Pound was fascinated by the translations of Japanese poetry and Noh plays which he discovered in the papers of Ernest Fenollosa, an American professor who had taught in Japan. Fenollosa had studied Chinese poetry under Japanese scholars; in 1913 his widow, Mary McNeil Fenollosa, decided to give his unpublished notes to Pound after seeing his work; she was looking for someone who cared about poetry rather than philology.[50] Pound edited and published Fenellosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry in 1918.[51]

The title page of the collection Cathay (1915), refers to the poet "Rihaku", the pronunciation in Japanese of the Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Li Bai, whose poems were much beloved in China and Japan for their technical mastery and much translated in the West because of their seeming simplicity. The volume is in Alexander's view the most attractive of Pound's work.[52] Chinese critic Wai-lim Yip writes of it: "One can easily excommunicate Pound from the Forbidden City of Chinese studies, but it seems clear that in his dealings with Cathay, even when he is given only the barest details, he is able to get into the central concerns of the original author by what we may perhaps call a kind of clairvoyance."[53]

Pound could understand Chinese himself. Some specialist critics see his work as among the best English translations of Chinese poetry, but others have complained that it contains many mistakes.[52] Cathay was the first of many translations Pound would make from the Chinese. Pound used Fenollosa's work as a starting point for what he called the ideogrammic method, which proceeded on Fenellosa's entirely mistaken but fruitful idea that each character represented an image or pictograph, based on sight rather than sound.[54] Robert Graves recalled "I once asked Arthur Waley how much Chinese Pound knew; Waley shook his head despondently."[55] However, Steven Yao, scholar of American and Asian literature, sees Cathay as a "major feat"; a work where Pound shows that translation is possible without a thorough knowledge of the source language. Yao does not view Pound's lack of Chinese as an obstacle, and states that the poet's trawl through centuries of scholarly interpretations resulted in a genuine understanding of the original poem.[56]

Marriage, BLAST

In August 1912 Harriet Monroe hired Pound as a regular contributor to Poetry. He submitted his own poems, as well as poems by James Joyce, Robert Frost, D. H. Lawrence, Yeats, H.D. and Aldington, and collected material for a 64-page anthology, Des Imagistes (1914). The Imagist movement began to attract attention from critics.[57] In November 1913 Yeats, whose eyesight was failing, invited Pound to stay with him as his secretary in Stone Cottage, Sussex, where Yeats had rented rooms. They stayed there for 10 weeks, reading and writing, walking in the woods and fencing. It was the first of three winters they spent together at Stone Cottage, two of them with Dorothy after she and Pound married on 20 April 1914.[58]

The marriage had proceeded despite opposition from her parents, who worried about his meager income, earned from contributions to literary magazines and probably less than £300 a year. Dorothy's annual income was £50, aided by £150 from her family. Her parents eventually consented, perhaps out of fear that she was getting older with no other suitor in sight, and Pound's concession to marry in church helped convince them. Afterwards he and Dorothy moved into an apartment with no bathroom at 5 Holland Place Chambers, near Church Walk, with the newly wed Hilda and Richard Aldington living next door.[59]

Pound wrote for Wyndham Lewis' literary magazine Blast, although only two issues were published. An advertisement in The Egoist promised it would cover "Cubism, Futurism, Imagisme and all Vital Forms of Modern Art". Pound took the opportunity to extend the definition of Imagisme to art, naming it Vorticism: "The image is a radiant node or cluster; it is ... a VORTEX, from which, and through which, and into which, ideas are constantly rushing."[60] Reacting to the magazine, the poet Lascelles Abercrombie called for the rejection of Imagism and a return to the traditionalism of William Wordsworth; Pound challenged him to a duel on the basis that "Stupidity carried beyond a certain point becomes a public menace".[61] Abercrombie suggested their choice of weapon be unsold copies of their own books.[62] The publication of Blast was celebrated at a dinner attended by New England poet Amy Lowell, then in London to meet the Imagists, but Hilda and Richard were already moving away from Pound's understanding of the movement, as he became more in line with Wyndham Lewis's ideas. When Lowell agreed to finance an anthology of Imagist poets, Pound's work was not included. Upset at Lowell, he began to call Imagisme "Amygism", and in July 1914 declared it dead, asking only that the term be preserved, although Lowell eventually Anglicized it.[63]

World War I, disillusionment

Between 1914 and 1916 Pound assisted in the serialisation of James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in The Egoist, then helped to have it published in book form. In 1915 he persuaded Poetry to publish T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Eliot had sent "Prufrock" to almost every editor in England, but was rejected. He eventually sent it to Pound, who instantly saw it as a work of genius and submitted it to Poetry.[64] "[Eliot] has actually trained himself AND modernized himself ON HIS OWN", Pound wrote to Monroe in October 1914. "The rest of the promising young have done one or the other but never both. Most of the swine have done neither."[65]

After the publication in 1915 of Cathay, Pound mentioned he was working on a long poem, casting about for the correct form. He told a friend in August: "It is a huge, I was going to say, gamble, but shan't", and in September described it as a "cryselephantine poem of immeasurable length which will occupy me for the next four decades unless it becomes a bore". About a year later, in January 1917, he had the first three trial cantos, distilled down to one, as Canto I published in Poetry.[66] He was now a regular contributor to three literary magazines. From 1917 he wrote music reviews for The New Age under the pen name William Atheling, and weekly pieces for The Egoist and The Little Review – many of the latter directed against provincialism and ignorance. However the volume of writing exhausted him and he feared he was wasting his time writing outside poetry,[67] exclaiming that he "MUST stop writing so much prose".[68]

Pound was deeply affected by the war. He was devastated when Gaudier-Brzeska, from whom he had commissioned a sculpture two years earlier, was killed in the trenches in 1915. He published Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir the following year, in reaction to what he saw as an unnecessary loss.[69] In the autumn of 1917 his depression worsened. He blamed American provincialism for the seizure of the October issue of The Little Review. The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice applied the Comstock Laws against an article Lewis wrote, describing it as lewd and indecent. Around the same time, Hulme was killed by shell-fire in Flanders, and Yeats married Georgie Hyde-Lees.[70] In 1918, after a bout of illness which was presumably the Spanish influenza, Pound decided to quit writing for The Little Review, mostly because of the volume of work. He asked the publisher for a raise to hire 23 year old Iseult Gonne as a typist – causing rumors Pound was having an affair with her – but was turned down.[68]

In 1919 he published a collection of his essays for The Little Review as Instigations, and "Homage to Sextus Propertius" was issued by Poetry. "Homage" is not a strict translation of the Latin poem; biographer David Moody describes it as "the refraction of an ancient poet through a modern intelligence". Harriet Monroe, editor of Poetry, published a letter from a professor of Latin, W. G. Hale, saying that Pound was "incredibly ignorant" of the language, and alluded to "about three-score errors" in Homage. Harriet did not publish Pound's response, which began "Cat-piss and porcupines!!" and continued, "The thing is no more a translation than my 'Altaforte' is a translation, or than Fitzgerald's Omar is a translation". But she interpreted his silence after that as his resignation as foreign editor.[71]

Hugh Selwyn Mauberley

There died a myriad And of the best, among them, For an old bitch gone in the teeth, For a botched civilization, Charm, smiling at the good mouth, Quick eyes gone under earth's lid, For two gross of broken statues, For a few thousand battered books.

“ ” Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, Section V (1920)

His poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley consists of 18 short parts, and describes a poet whose life, like his own, has become sterile and meaningless. Published in June 1920, it marked his farewell to London. He had become disgusted by the loss of life during the war and was unable to reconcile himself with it. Stephen Adams writes that, just as Eliot denied he was Prufrock, so Pound denied he was Mauberley, but the work can nevertheless be read as autobiographical. It begins with a satirical analysis of the London literary scene, before turning to social criticism, economics and an attack on the causes of the war; here the word usury appears in his work for the first time. The critic F. R. Leavis saw it as Pound's major achievement.[72]

The war had shattered Pound's belief in modern western civilization. He saw the Vorticist movement as finished and doubted his own future as a poet. He had only the New Age to write for; his relationship with Poetry was finished, The Egoist was quickly running out of money because of censorship problems caused by the serialization of Joyce's Ulysses, and the funds for The Little Review had dried up. Other magazines ignored his submissions or refused to review his work. Toward the end of 1920 he and Dorothy decided their time in London was over, and resolved to move to Paris.[73]

Orage wrote in the January 1921 issue of The New Age: "Mr. Pound has been an exhilarating influence for culture in England; he has left his mark upon more than one of the arts, upon literature, music, poetry and sculpture, and quite a number of men and movements owe their initiation to his self-sacrificing stimulus."[74]


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