Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear
Any reader even peripherally interested in the work and life of Ezra Pound will take delight in Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz’s masterful selection and editing of Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914. To hear the authentic voices of the letters is to meet again but anew the youthful Pound. The facts of Pound’s growth as an artist and critic during these years are not altered, but a new perception of the inner workings of his mind and personality is gained. More important, the volume serves as a concise but fully detailed picture of the social and cultural life of late Edwardian and early Georgian England, an era unknowingly on the brink of irrevocable destruction within a year of the end of this chronicle.
In contrast to the manner in which the structures and conventions of late Edwardian and early Georgian society hindered Pound’s courtship with Dorothy Shakespear, the existence in London of serious reviews, of clubs and societies, of bookshops and small publishers, of well-attended artistic salons such as Olivia Shakespear’s worked as an advantage for a newly arrived but promising young poet such as Pound. The key to opening all of these doors was William Butler Yeats, and the key to Yeats was Olivia Shakespear. Within a year of arriving in London, Pound found his way to her literary salon, where he read Yeats’s poetry aloud in what Dorothy describes as a “strong, odd, accent, half American, half Irish,” even imitating Yeats’s own intonations. Pound praised Yeats’s verse and spoke of the great mystical experience he expected to have and of his willingness to starve for Art and Truth. A blatant ploy, but one which worked. Of his own early poems, those which he read to Dorothy and her mother were full of early Yeatsian tone, theme, subject matter, and archaic diction, in marked contrast to the poetic standards he argued with William Carlos Williams and Harriet Monroe, back in America, and even less advanced than his own efforts in Personae and Exultations (both 1909). His ruse worked; as Olivia and Dorothy showed more and more of Pound’s work to Yeats, the more entrenched Pound became in London’s literary circles. By January of 1913, Pound reports that Yeats said, “[Pound’s] criticism was much more valuable than Sturge Moore’s: I should hope so!!!” That winter of 1913-1914, Pound was living with Yeats at Stone Cottage, where he nominally served as the great poet’s secretary. Already he believed that Yeats had more to learn from him than he from Yeats.
The most fruitful work to come from the Stone Cottage sessions resulted from the vogue for things Oriental that was sweeping Europe during those pre-World War I years. The most specific influence came from Ernest Fenollosa’s manuscripts of Chinese poetry and N dramas, of which Mrs. Fenollosa made Pound the literary executor in December, 1913. The manuscripts’ emphasis on verbal spareness that relied on the strength of the image to carry meaning influenced Yeats’s poetry, his plays, and his critical theory. For Pound, the manuscripts led directly to his concept of Imagism and Des Imagistes, an anthology which he edited in 1914.
During these years, Pound also had been lecturing for money, publishing poetry and criticism in important English journals, publishing yearly books, and serving as European editor for Harriet Monroe’s Chicago-based Poetry. He was attracting increasingly important reviews, the most important of which the editors of this volume have reproduced. It was also during this period that Pound became involved with the avant-garde writer and artist Wyndham Lewis and the modernist sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, whom both Pound and Olivia Shakespear encouraged by their purchases. The editors have enriched the letters with reproductions of a number of these Gaudier-Brzeska pieces.
Two other stages of Pound’s development emphasized by this collection relate to his poetic theories and ideas. The first is his idea of how artistic creative energy is developed. A year before the first issue of Lewis’ magazine Blast and its Vorticist manifesto, Pound objected to Dorothy’s wasting time at traditional female busywork, saying, “Energy depends on its own ability to make a vortex—genius même.” Leisure activities which require complete concentration (such as chess or tennis), Pound suggests, can, perhaps subconsciously, contribute to an energy explosion in the field of one’s true gift. Other activities, such as Dorothy’s embroidery, dissipate the energy. Second, these letters support the theory that Pound, at this early stage of this development, already was thinking of subjects and techniques by which a long, modern poem could be written: The foundations for the Cantos were being laid. Here in the letters one sees a young poet on the verge of breaking with his immediate traditions, never quite as sure of himself as he blustered in public.
One also sees a more humanly faceted Pound from Dorothy’s letters. The first entry in her journal asks a bit doubtfully, “Are you a genius? or are you only an artist in Life?” Two years later (1911), however, she truly believed in his genius. Her conclusion resulted from her experience of knowing and loving Pound—he has made her alive, she writes, for the first time in her life. She also emphasizes the tenderness of his spirit and mind, the delicate peace of their love, his deep loneliness, and the strange elusiveness of his mind. In 1911, remembering their visit to Sirmione on Lake Garda, she asked Pound to build a small altar, which he did and which he also incorporated in Canzoni (1911), making her altar as permanent as words can make anything. As the editors make clear, Canzoni was Dorothy’s book. In doing so, the editors clarify and identify specific people and events important to those early poems—people and events that are also included later in the Cantos. For the literary biographer, these letters are rich material.
As lovers, Pound and Dorothy shared a strong sense of humor and enjoyed giving nicknames to their friends: Georgie Hyde-Lees became “Square” for the shape of her face; Yeats they called the Eagle. Pound was able to remain on friendly terms with his two earlier loves—Mary Moore and Hilda Doolittle—both of whom were admitted into Dorothy’s charmed circle with a surprising openness. The reader sees in these letters a Pound hidden from the public by...
(The entire section is 2660 words.)