No 4 - 1975
Ezra Pound Abandons the English
EZRA POUND’S long love-affair with England, and his angry and wounded turning against her in 1917 or 1918, cannot of course bulk so large in an American’s sense of him as in an Englishman’s. It is an American, Herbert Schniedau, who has asked:
Can any man who identifies himself with the British world of letters, however independent and tolerant he may be, write a fair-minded book about Pound? What Pound did to English literature and British sensibilities doesn’t seem forgivable, and I really think that the English were more offended by Pound’s political obsessions than were the countrymen he ostensibly betrayed.
This is fair comment; and the last clause in particular is, surprisingly, manifestly true, explain it how we may.
And yet an Englishman’s relation to English culture and its traditions may be more tormented than Schniedau allows for, especially if the Englishman in question defines himself as, or aspires to be, an English artist. Such a one may feel that Pound’s ‘writing off’ of England, his abandonment of her — physically in 1920, in imagination some years earlier — was abundantly justified, to the extent indeed that it was not so much his justified rejection of her, as her unjustifiable rejection of him. And yet such an Englishman must wonder: Was there once virtue in England, which subsequently went out of her? If so, when did this happen? In the casualty-lists from the Battle of the Somme? (Or is that merely rhetoric?) And can the virtue that thus went out of the spiritual reality called England, ever be restored? Has there been such a restoration, since 1920? If so, when did it happen? And if not, when will it ever happen? When, and how?
These are serious and painful questions. At all events there are Englishmen who find them so. To take one example out of many, the native Englishman D. H. Lawrence reached just the same conclusion as Pound at just the same time, and Lawrence’s letters record it; he concluded, just as Pound did, that England after the First World War was, for the artist, uninhabitable. The names of Robert Graves, W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood may serve to remind us of English writers who seem to have reached the same dismaying conclusion over the years since.
However that may be, there are reasons for thinking that the abandonment of England, and of any hopes for her, was not much less momentous for Pound than it is for his English readers. After all, Pound had married England — not figuratively, but literally, in the person of Dorothy Shakespear; and Ben Hecht in 1918 reported that Pound was ‘a doting monogamist’ (1) It didn’t last; his alienation from England seems to have coincided with an alienation from Dorothy, for within five years he had had a child by Olga Rudge. And this is not altogether surprising; for Dorothy Pound seems to have been English in a singularly entire and uncompromising fashion. The daughter of Olivia Shakespear, who had been briefly Yeats’s mistress and had bought Wyndham Lewis’s canvases and Gaudier’s drawings, Dorothy told Hugh Kenner in 1965, ‘I read poetry only with great difficulty. I never did much care for it’ (2) She said also, recalling Pound translating Noh plays on their honeymoon at Stone Cottage in Sussex, ‘I was not then preoccupied with plays and characters. I was trying to make out what sort of creature I was going to be living with.’ Moreover, Dorothy’s Englishness was centuries-old: among her cousins was one Charles Talbot — ‘one of the Shakespear names’, she said — who owned a medieval abbey in Yorkshire, ‘and once Ezra and I crawled over the roof to a turret to see a copy of the Magna Charta, kept there in a glass case’. In 1945, in an American prison-camp near Pisa, Pound remembered that (Canto 80):
To watch a while from the tower
where dead flies lie thick over the old charter
forgotten, oh quite forgotten
but confirming John’s first one,
and still there if you climb over attic rafters;
to look at the fields; are they tilled?
is the old terrace alive as it might be
with a whole colony
if money be free again?
Chesterton’s England of has-been and why-not,
or is it all rust, ruin, death duties and mortgages
and the great carriage yard empty
and more pictures gone to pay taxes
When a dog is tall but
not so tall as all that
that dog is a Talbot
(a bit long in the pasterns?)
When a butt is 1/2 as tall as a whole butt
That butt is a small butt
Let backe and side go bare
and the old kitchen left as the monks had left it
and the rest as time has cleft it.
[Only shadows enter my tent
as men pass between me and the sunset,] . . .
If, as Hugh Kenner believes, Pound never ceased to love Dorothy even while he loved Olga, this is surely part of what he loved in her, an aspect of what she meant to him; and so Pound’s feelings for and about England were, right to the end, not much less tormented than any English reader’s can be. And the English reader who does not understand that the punning on ‘Talbot’ is painful and all but hysterical, like the punning of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, does not understand Pound at all. As for Dorothy’s loyalty, it proved equal to any occasion; and in particular through the years of Pound’s incarceration in St Elizabeth’s her devotion was exemplary. Certainly she was no philistine, but a graphic artist herself. And yet . . . ‘I read poetry only with great difficulty. I never did much care for it.’ It is at any rate possible that in her an extraordinary ethical rightness and decency coexisted with aesthetic stiffness and suspicion. It was a not uncommon combination in a certain breed of Englishman and Englishwoman — a breed perhaps now vanished, which is not to say, improved upon.
As for Canto 80, it continues, and closes upon, ‘the matter of England’:
beyond the eastern barbed wire
a sow with nine boneen
matronly as any duchess at Claridge’s
and for that Christmas at Maurie Hewlett’s
Going out from Southampton
they passed the car by the dozen
who would not have shown weight on a scale
for Noel the green holly
Noel, Noel, the green holly
A dark night for the holly
That would have been Salisbury plain, and I have not thought of
the Lady Anne for this twelve years
Nor of Le Portel
How tiny the panelled room where they stabbed him
In her lap, almost, La Stuarda
Si tuit li dolh ehl planh el marrimen
for the leopards and broom plants
Tudor indeed is gone and every rose,
Blood-red, blanch-white that in the sunset glows
Cries: ‘Blood, Blood, Blood!’ against the gothic stone
Of England, as the Howard or Boleyn knows.
Nor seeks the carmine petal to infer;
Nor is the white bud Time’s inquisitor
Probing to know if its new-gnarled root
Twists from York’s head or belly of Lancaster;
Or if a rational soul should stir, perchance,
Within the stem or summer shoot to advance
Contribution’s utmost throw, seeking in thee
But oblivion, not thy forgiveness, FRANCE.
as the young lizard extends his leopard spots
along the grass-blade seeking the green midge half an ant-size
and the Serpentine will look just the same
and the gulls be as neat on the pond
and the sunken garden unchanged
and God knows what else is left of our London
my London, your London
and if her green elegance
remains on this side of my rain ditch
puss lizard will lunch on some other T-bone
sunset grand couturier.
‘That Christmas’ (not that it matters) was Christmas 1911, which Pound spent as a guest of Maurice Hewlett’s at the Old Rectory, Broad Chalke, Salisbury — a house which had once been a nunnery, dating back to 1487. (3) Driving with Hewlett across Thomas Hardy’s Wessex, the scene is peopled for Pound with the ghosts of rustic waits and mummers of the long English past, such as those of Hardy’s Under the Greenwood Tree, one of Pound’s favourite books. Hewlett, author of The Queen’s Quair, brings to mind another writer who had similarly concerned himself with Mary Queen of Scots (‘La Stuarda’) — that is to say, Swinburne in his Mary Stuart. Swinburne is alluded to, here as elsewhere, by the place-name ‘Le Portel’, a village on the Channel coast where — so Pound seems to have believed — Swinburne on a famous occasion was saved from drowning by French fishermen. At Holyrood House in Edinburgh one is still shown the room where Rizzio was stabbed ‘in her lap almost’. The line in Provençal is from Bertran de Born’s ‘Planh for the Young English King’, which Pound had translated splendidly as early as 1909. The ‘leopards and broom plants’, Plantagenet emblems, signify the dynastic reasons for which Henry the young king was killed, as were Rizzio and Mary’s husband Darnley centuries later.
Any one is free to decide that life is too short for such unriddlings; others (I speak from experience) may develop a taste for them. A more important point is that passages of this sort, spliced as they are with images like the lizard from the immediate foreground of Pound’s tent inside the wire-mesh cage of the prison-camp, do not come into being out of the free associations of idle reverie, though in these Pisan cantos Pound exploits the illusion of that, as Joyce did in Ulysses when he pretended to transport himself and us into the mind of Leopold Bloom. The reason we are reminded of these historical episodes, rather than any of a hundred others, comes clear only with the surprising and congested line that closes the quatrains about the Wars of the Roses: ‘But oblivion, not thy forgiveness, FRANCE.’ The England that Pound mourns the loss of is, as it had been for him from the first, an integral province of western Europe, sharing a common culture with France and always reaching out, through France, to the shores of the Mediterranean.
This emphasis will not commend itself to the English reader whom Herbert Schniedau envisages. Such a reader is likely to define his Englishness as precisely that which continental Europe is not. And in fact, of recent years Dickens’s Mr Podsnap has walked again, cherishing insularity as a patriotic duty. But of course there are other things in this passage which will put English teeth on edge. Colonel Blimp today is likely to be a Roundhead colonel, in his professed sentiments a Leveller, though not of course in his practices. And his egalitarianism will be offended by ‘the great carriage yard empty’, and by ‘more pictures gone to pay taxes’. Especially as voiced by an American who had disloyally taken the wrong side in a war just successfully completed ‘for democracy’, the sentiments must have seemed — in 1948, when The Pisan Cantos appeared — nothing short of shameless! An English writer who went into self-exile just when Pound and Lawrence did, Ford Madox Ford, had always been denied serious consideration (as he is denied it still) for having, in No More Parades at the end of a previous war, envisaged the England he was leaving in just such manorial terms; and if the Englishman could not be forgiven, how forgive the American? (Lawrence, it is true, envisaged the England he was relinquishing very largely in the image of Garsington Manor; but then, Lawrence’s origins are so impeccably proletarian that the aberration can be overlooked!)
And then there is the insolence of the last line: ‘sunset grand couturier’. Isn’t that the give-away? It will certainly seem so to the Englishman (as I take him to be), who found in the ‘Envoi’ to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley — Pound’s most explicit farewell to England, as he prepared to leave her in 1918 — ‘externality: an externality which, considering what Mauberley attempts, is utterly disabling’. (4) This is the same reader who, having decided that the ‘Envoi’ is ‘literary, in a limiting sense’, is provoked by the word ‘magic’ in the middle stanza into deciding that ‘the term “literary” becomes a good deal more limiting, for the term “aesthetic” rises to our lips, and so, perhaps, does “American”.’ And there we have it! For this sort of Englishman, ‘externality’ — to things English — is what any American is condemned to; and per contra ‘inwardness’ — with things English — is what an Englishman quite simply has, painlessly, as a birthright. From this point of view, the only good American is one who stays shamefacedly mute about his English cousins, however many years he may have lived among them. The same rule does not hold, it will be noticed, when there is any question of Englishmen talking about Americans.
The comment I have been quoting from appeared in 1965. The vocabulary is different from the comments of fifty years earlier which wounded and infuriated Pound, and drove him out of England, (5) but the sentiments are identical. And indeed even the vocabulary is sometimes the same. The horrifying thing about for instance Robert Nichols’s review in the Observer for 11 January 1920 — ‘Mr Pound, indeed, serves his lobster a l’Américaine’ — is that it could perfectly well have appeared in the Observer last Sunday.
It is entirely possible to think that if ‘literary’ and ‘aesthetic’ are words that go naturally with ‘American’ but not with ‘English’, so much the worse for the English. Ah, but we mean ‘literary’ — presumably ‘aesthetic’ also — ‘in a limiting sense’. Yet from those English lips which utter this face-saving locution, one has yet to hear the words uttered in any sense that is not ‘limiting’. And from a set of preconceptions like that there is no way into Pound’s universe at all. As regards ‘externality’, for instance, Pound may be thought to admit the charge, and to glory in it. For he applauded Wyndham Lewis’s alter ego in Tarr, when the latter explained that it is a condition of art ‘to have no inside, nothing you cannot see. It is not something impelled like a machine by a little egoistic inside;’ and again, ‘Deadness, in the limited sense in which we use that word, is the first condition of art. The second is absence of soul, in the sentimental human sense. The lines and masses of a statue are its soul.’ (6) Between a limiting sense (for ‘literary’) and a limited sense (for ‘deadness’), we are here navigating in light and tricky airs. And Pound had later to explain what he meant, and what he did not mean, by his endorsement of Lewis. After all, he was later to applaud Hardy’s poetry for having, precisely, ‘the insides’. Yet he never retracted this avowal; nor — given what he meant by it — did he need to. The clue to what he meant is the last sentence from Lewis: ‘The lines and masses of a statue are its soul’. That ‘inwardness’ so prized by some English readers, and characteristically found by them (implausibly) in Lawrence, is an attention directed so far ‘inward’ that it can never come to the surface for long enough to notice how the sunlight breaks upon the edges and volumes of a piece of sculpture; and that is why indeed such readers cannot use the word ‘aesthetic’ except ‘in a limiting sense’.
Accordingly, the most instructive gloss on ‘externality’ is to be found where we might expect, in Pound’s 1916 memoir of the sculptor, Gaudier-Brzeska, where he writes of Gaudier and Lewis and other ‘vorticists’, painters and sculptors:
These new men have made me see form, have made me more conscious of the sky where it juts down between houses, of the bright pattern of sunlight which the bath water throws up on the ceiling, of the great ‘Vs’ of light that dart through the chinks over the curtain rings, all these are new chords, new keys of design.
It is in this profoundly grateful and reverent sense, certainly not with any heartless flippancy, that forty years later in the prison-stockade Pound greets the sunset as a designer — ‘grand couturier’. Plainly the man who wrote this was the man who in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley took as his model and master Gautier, who described himself proudly as a man ‘pour qui le monde visible existe’. But the English reader has a label ready to tie on to Théophile Gautier; and by this time we can guess what is written on it — ‘arid aestheticism’. (7)
When Schniedau says, ‘What Pound did to English literature and British sensibilities doesn’t seem forgivable’, he doubtless has in mind certain passages from How to Read, which was originally addressed to the American readers of the New York Herald Tribune Books on 13, 20 and 27 January 1929. For instance:
The Britons never have shed barbarism; they are proud to tell you that Tacitus said the last word about Germans. When Mary Queen of Scots went to Edinburgh she bewailed going out among savages, and she herself went from a sixteenth-century court that held but a barbarous, or rather a drivelling and idiotic and superficial travesty of the Italian culture as it had been before the débâcle of 1527. The men who tried to civilize these shaggy and uncouth marginalians by bringing them news of civilization have left a certain number of translations that are better reading today than are the works of the ignorant islanders who were too proud to translate.
Whereupon Pound applauds, as he had done before and was to do again, Gavin Douglas’s translation of Virgil, Arthur Golding’s and Marlowe’s translations of Ovid. Again (where Pound’s addressing himself to Americans is especially evident):
We are so encumbered by having British literature in our foreground that . . . one must speak of it in disproportion. It was kept alive during the last century by a series of exotic injections. Swinburne read Greek and took English metric in hand; Rossetti brought in the Italian primitives; Fitzgerald made the only good poem of the time that has gone to the people; it is called, and is to a great extent, a translation or mistranslation.
There was a faint waft of early French influence. Morris translated sagas, the Irish took over the business for a few years; Henry James led, or rather preceded, the novelists, and then the Britons resigned en bloc; the language is now in the keeping of the Irish (Yeats and Joyce); apart from Yeats, since the death of Hardy, poetry is being written by Americans. All the developments in English verse since 1910 are due almost wholly to Americans. In fact, there is no longer any reason to call it English verse, and there is no present reason to think of England at all.
This is unfair? Yes, of course it is. Elsewhere in How to Read Pound remembers Landor and Browning, and has to make special provision to exempt them from these strictures. Moreover, when Pound revised and expanded How to Read, to make ABC of Reading (London and New Haven, 1934), he obliquely admitted the unfairness of these passages. But they are not manifestly unfair; there is a case to answer. We English have never answered the case, because we have refused to recognize that the case was ever made. And so the case against us has gone by default. Among serious writers and readers in the United States (as distinct from shallow and modish Anglophiles mostly around New York), it is taken for granted that Pound’s caustic dismissal of us in 1929 was justified, and that nothing has happened in the forty-five years since to alter that picture significantly. Hugh Kenner for instance, in a work of massive scholarship, The Pound Era (1971), can write: ‘By the mid-1920s a massive triviality, a failure of will on a truly forbidding scale, was allowing English culture to lapse into shapes characterized by childishness, self-indulgence, utter predictability.’ And throughout Kenner’s book ‘English’ is taken to imply arrogant obtuseness, complacent inertia, and effeminate enervation. If we resent this (as we should), we ought to realize that it is we who are to blame for it. For neither Kenner nor Pound is a professional or obsessive Anglophobe. Both men are reporting what seem to them the facts of the case, and they are the more confident about doing so because no Englishman has arisen to rebut their arguments. For us to respond with sneering anti-Americanism is the merest childishness.
After this, Pound’s relations with England and the English were for the most part an aspect of his relations with that one of his erstwhile protégés who had become, surprisingly, a pillar of the English establishment — Eliot, editor of The Criterion. And these negotiations are mostly conducted in a tone of high comedy; after 1930 Pound’s anger is virtually monopolized by Roosevelt’s U.S.A., and English culture is for him just something that he can’t take seriously. This does not prevent him from honouring English writing when it is honourable: for instance Binyon’s Dante, Rouse’s Homer, the early books of Adrian Stokes, and the poems of Basil Bunting. But the preferred tone is one of indulgent banter. (And at the risk of labouring the obvious, let it be said that Pound is often a very funny writer, in verse and prose alike.) If the English reader doesn’t like this, let him ask himself if Housman’s Name and Nature of Poetry, or — touching as it is, and as Pound acknowledges — the career of Harold Monro, is not treated with as much compassionate indulgence as possible in the Criterion articles by Pound which he reprinted in Polite Essays (1937).
Still more to the point is another essay in that volume, ‘Mr Eliot’s Solid Merit’ (originally in the New English Weekly for 12 July 1934). Considering that this was written at a time when Pound’s reputation was eclipsed as Eliot’s rose towards the zenith, the generosity of this essay, its lack of rancour, is admirable. And Pound’s generosity towards Eliot did not fail through subsequent decades, when nothing was more common among the English intelligentsia, especially the academic part of it, than to assail Pound with weapons picked from Eliot’s armoury. This strategy is still in high favour among us. It consists of making categorical and systematic certain distinctions made, and preferences expressed, by Eliot in his essays; and then dismissing Pound merely because he writes with a measure of respect of certain writers (Swinburne is one example) on whom Eliot, the arbiter of taste, is supposed to have conclusively turned down his thumbs. At its most ludicrous, this makes the ‘Envoi’ to Hugh Selwyn Mauberley suspect, or worse than suspect, simply because it alludes to Edmund Waller, whereas the O.K. authors from Waller’s period, among pedestrian readers of Eliot’s essays, are taken to be Donne and Marvell. Eliot, needless to say, never countenanced these devious manoeuvres.
We should now be in a position to answer Herbert Schniedau’s question: ‘Can any man who identifies himself with the British world of letters . . . write a fair-minded book about Pound?’ The answer is: Yes, this can be done, and it has been done — by G. S. Fraser, for one. If the English writer stops short of uncritical adulation, and also has a longer memory than the Americans for the loathsome politics that Pound was infected by, that is all to the good. There are British Poundians, and they are among the best. If there are few of them, we have seen why. It is because trying to give credit to this great poet commits a patriotic Englishman (or Scotsman for that matter — Fraser is a Scot) to very tormenting and unwelcome questions and reflections about the spiritual state of England or Scotland today, and over the last fifty years. It is therefore inevitable that our Poundians will be exceptions, and that majority opinion for the foreseeable future will be more or less hysterically hostile to Pound. This would not matter so much if Pound had not been a great technical innovator in verse-writing. Because the British world of letters as a whole has refused, and still refuses, to consider Pound temperately, it refuses to acknowledge — indeed, it cannot even understand — the poetic forms that Pound invented, or the principles of form which he enunciated. And in saying this, one has in mind not the Cantos but the much more straightforward and generally serviceable forms which Pound put into currency in collections like Ripostes (1912) and Lustra (1916). One thinks for instance of Imagism, and of the treatment which the TLS meted out to Peter Jones’s anthology of Imagist poetry. In short, what happens is that in England — and here one does mean England, rather than Scotland or Ireland — the non-academic makers and moulders of literary opinion are judging poetry by standards which are sixty years out of date. The rest of the world surveys this spectacle with amused disbelief.
1. Quoted by W. K. Rose, ‘Pound and Lewis: The Crucial Years’, in Agenda Wyndham Lewis Special Issue (1969-70), p. 130.
2. Hugh Kenner, ‘D.P. Remembered’, Paideuma II, 3 (1973), pp. 486-93.
3. Noel Stock, The Life of Ezra Pound, London, 1970, p. 108.
4. A. L. French, ‘Olympian Apathein . . .’ in Essays in Criticism (1965), reprinted in Ezra Pound: A Critical Anthology, ed. J. P. Sullivan, Penguin, 1970, pp. 326-42.
5. See particularly the last pages of ‘Remy de Gourmont: A Distinction’ (in Pound, Instigations, 1920). Here we find quoted G. W. Prothero of The Quarterly Review in 1914 refusing to print Pound in those august pages because of Pound’s association with the Vorticist magazine, Blast — ‘It stamps a man too disadvantageously’. More strikingly, a letter from de Gourmont in 1915 wonders none too politely if his writings could ever be acceptable to American readers; and Pound reproducing the letter reflects tartly that they certainly couldn’t be acceptable to the English!
6. Pound, Instigations, p. 223.
7. A. L. French, loc. cit.
- 10th Muse
- Angel Exhaust
- Blithe Spirit
- Brando's hat
- Brittle Star
- Cannon's Mouth, The
- Coffee House, The
- Dream Catcher
- Floating Bear, The
- French Literary Review, The
- Frogmore Papers, The
- Global Tapestry
- Grosseteste Review
- Homeless Diamonds
- Interpreter's House, The
- Journal, The
- Lamport Court
- London Magazine, The
- Modern Poetry in Translation
- Monkey Kettle
- Neon Highway
- New Welsh Review
- North, The
- Obsessed with pipework
- Oxford Poetry
- Painted, spoken
- Paper, The
- Pen Pusher Magazine
- Poetry Cornwall
- Poetry London
- Poetry London (1951)
- Poetry Nation
- Poetry Review, The
- Poetry Salzburg Review
- Poetry Scotland
- Poetry Wales
- Purple Patch
- Rain Dog
- Reach Poetry
- Review, The
- Rialto, The
- Second Aeon
- Seventh Quarry, The
- Smiths Knoll
- Strange Faeces
- Tabla Book of New Verse, The
- Tolling Elves
- Ugly Tree, The
- Wolf, The
- Yellow Crane, The