Pound, Ezra 1885–1972
American poet, translator, essayist, and critic, Pound is heralded as the initiator of modern twentieth-century poetry. Influenced by Whitman's Leaves of Grass, his own lifetime masterpiece, Cantos, was constantly revised and added to during the more than forty years of its construction. Literary allusions, foreign phrases and forms abound in this volume, which T. S. Eliot called "an inexhaustible reference book of verse form." His translations of Chinese poetry are often criticized as misrepresentative of their original structure, reading like Pound's own work; such experimentation, however, added new dimensions to the genre, later expounded upon by other twentieth-century poets. Pound's political sympathies at one time threatened to diminish his reputation as one of the most innovative and creative artists of his generation. Influencing poetry before, during, and after his career as a poet, Pound was a secretary to Yeats, playing an important part in transforming that great poet's artistic vision during his last period. He is responsible for editing The Waste Land into the form that won Eliot world-wide acclaim, and his tenacious support of Joyce during a period of financial distress allowed the novelist to finish Ulysses. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 7, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 58, rev. ed.; obituary, Vols. 37-40, rev. ed.)
Surprisingly little has been written about Pound's translation of the Old English "Seafarer." (p. 127)
Truly, the scholar who possesses the original poem is in an awkward position, faced with two poems remarkably alike but different; his approach inevitably suffers from a psychological interference—something like hearing a new interpretation of a familiar song. He may prefer a bland Modern English substitute, that reminds him of the original, to a fully recreated poem. The scholar too will have his own understanding of the poem; Pound's, following a line of scholarship now in disfavor, will almost certainly differ. The reader without Old English, on the other hand, may find Pound's poem magnificent …, but he may be troubled by rumours of Pound's blunders. The question can only be settled by a line-by-line comparison of the two poems, with a mind alert to possible reasons for whatever divergences do exist—for it will be found that their number has been exaggerated. A simple check-list of Pound's "errors" is most misleading. But, before such a comparison is possible, some other points must be kept in mind.
Pound first published his "Seafarer" in … 1911. Except for a brief "philological note" it formed without comment the first of a series of twelve articles under the title "I Gather the Limbs of Osiris," which were said to illustrate a "new method" in scholarship…. His "new method" of scholarship is a deliberate reaction against the German philological tradition in which he was trained: he explains it as the method of the "luminous detail," the single relevant fact that crystallizes all the facts comprising the Zeitgeist more efficiently than the catalog-of-details method that he opposed. Like Pater before him, Pound took for his model Jacob Burckhardt's Civilization of the Renaissance. "The Seafarer," then, he offers as the "luminous detail" capturing the essence of pre-Christian Anglo-Saxon England. Such a method has less to do with scholarship, perhaps, than with imagism, which was the next step in Pound's development, and the method is sufficiently displayed in the Cantos, which combine both old and new in a veritable Germanic card-file of luminous details.
Thus the "Seafarer" has closer ties with Poundian imagism than first appears. The realism of the seafaring details in the original have impressed most of its readers (and they need not be less realistic even if we do accept the more recent allegorizing interpretations). And Old English poetry, like imagism, is a poetry of nouns. This is apparent even in the metric, which characteristically stresses nouns rather than verbs. The kennings, too, are strikingly reminiscent of the juxtaposed pictures, the "verb-nouns," that Pound was soon to discover in Fenollosa's notes on Chinese poetry. (pp. 128-29)
The appearance of the "Seafarer" … [points up Pound's desire] to show that translation is itself an act of criticism. The translator must not merely bring over the semantic meaning of his text, he must first determine the text itself and then try to recreate its indefinable poetic qualities within the conditions of another language. With a doubtful text, the translator must make editorial decisions for the reader. When matters of interpretation or nuance are doubtful, the translator must choose, while the reader of the original may suspend judgment. And when the original is remarkable for some one quality in particular, its sound for example, the translator is artful insofar as he captures it, even while sacrificing other more ordinary accuracies. Generally in translating Old English poetry there are two special problems: to create a diction in which the kennings and double nouns seem natural, and to find an equivalent for a metric non-existent in Modern English.
Pound's solution for the diction of his poem has drawn criticism…. His diction is a vaguely archaic pastiche resembling no idiom ever spoken. Archaic language has been all but excluded from verse now for the past half century, and we commonly expect translations to pretend that they are poems written yesterday: for this Pound himself is partly responsible. But in 1911 not even Pound had shed the diction of Rossetti and the Nineties, and no contemporary poetic idiom was available. Contemporaneity had not yet emerged as a criterion. The archaic pastiche, with its "—eth" verbs and syntactic inversions, would have been more difficult to make convincing a few years later, but in 1911 it simply represented the first Georgian Anthology (1912) pushed to an extreme. This in itself would not save Pound's poem—it does not save William Morris's Beowulf or Gilbert Murray's Euripides—but Pound's diction proves itself capable of expressiveness, and I for one would not trade the passage beginning "Lordly men are to earth o'ergiven" for anything else in poetry. Pound, though, would not have made his seafarer speak like a contemporary in any circumstances. For one thing, Old English translates so readily into cognates and derivatives which tend to have a more archaic feeling than other types of words; yet Old English is comfortably translated so, while Latin poetry is insufferable in a Latinate vocabulary—a convincing demonstration that we still feel Old English as the root of the language. For another thing, Anglo-Saxon culture itself, like Provençal, has a remote and archaic feeling, while the culture of Latin poetry is closer to ours, decadent, urban, urbane. Accordingly, Pound's improvisations on Propertius are thoroughly modern, while his versions of Old English and Provençal are archaic, and those of Cavalcanti deliberately recall the idiom of Wyatt. (pp. 129-30)
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Because of [the] cavalier disregard of ascertainable facts and documents we can be offered, as a portrait of the youthful Pound, a figure who [according to George Quasha] "was seeking a radical redefinition of poetic possibilities and returning to the roots of civilization in order to show how much had been lost in the watery conventions handed over to us by the nineteenth century." The ascertainable records present us on the contrary with a man who admired Swinburne and Thomas Hardy and D. G. Rossetti, Beddoes and Landor and Browning, Gautier and Heine and Leopardi, Stendhal and Remy de Gourmont and Flaubert; a man who had virtually no views of American nineteenth-century literature, since he appears not to have read attentively (nor was he to read) Emily Dickinson or Melville or Hawthorne, Fenimore Cooper or Thoreau; who thought on the other hand that "there is more wisdom, perhaps more 'revolution' in Whistler's portrait of young Miss Alexander than in all the Judaic drawings of the 'prophetic' Blake", in short, a man who carried more nineteenth-century baggage than any comparably gifted contemporary among writers in English. If Pound is a master and founding father of twentieth-century modernism in the arts, it is certainly not by virtue of having exploded, and persuaded us to reject, nineteenth-century pretensions.
we may reach back further, and consider not the nineteenth century but the eighteenth…. As with nineteenth century "romantic" culture, so with eighteenth-century "Enlightenment" culture, we find Pound cast in a role of iconoclast which an unprejudiced scrutiny of his recorded opinions simply will not support.
Accordingly, when we hear it happily declared of the United States in the 1970s, "Our scene is very different from the cultural vacuum at the turn of the century which drove Ezra Pound heroically to seek to 'resuscitate the dead art of poetry,'" we ought to be on our guard. And sure enough the documents make it clear that, for the young Ezra Pound, London between 1908 and 1912 was anything but a "cultural vacuum"…. Moreover, many readers of Pound's Hugh Selwyn Mauberley take the line, "resuscitate the dead art of poetry," ironically, as a gibe at anyone who is damfool enough to think that the art of poetry is, or could be, "dead." In short, everywhere we turn, so long as we have some scruples about evidence, we encounter in the young Pound not a revolutionary or iconoclast but a sometimes militant conservative.
Indeed, it is possible to argue that Pound was at bottom an Edwardian man of letters …, and that the provocative oddities of his later poetry and his later opinions reflect merely the increasingly desperate straits to which a man formed in that milieu was compelled, as political and social developments destroyed any possibility of that kind of milieu being reconstituted. Certainly Pound's Edwardianism, if we may call it that, was something that he never wholly outgrew. And so when he died, there disappeared not only the last surviving specimen of one sort of twentieth-century modernist but also, odd as it must seem, the last survivor of a still older breed, formed by the century before. (pp. 7-9)
The European "confederation" that Pound thought he spoke for throughout his life was effectively a Europe that spoke Latin and its Romance derivatives, including English as the most remote and partial of those derivatives, and making special provision for classical Greek as in important ways the original source of them all, even of Latin. And the sanities and wisdoms that Pound conceived of himself as promoting against the evermore impudent barbarians were carried—so he thought, and was to think—pre-eminently in Latin and the Romance languages…. (p. 13)
But if the language trusted by the young Pound is Romance language in this respectable, technical, and well-defined sense, what's to be said of language like this?
Aye, I am wistful for my kin of the spirit
And have none about me save in the shadows
When come they, surging of power, 'DAEMON'
'Quasi KALOUN'. S.T. says Beauty is most that, a 'calling to the soul.'
Well then, so call they, the swirlers out of the mist of my soul,
They that come mewards, bearing old magic.
Here we have "Romance language" in an altogether less reputable sense, which has more to do with romanticism (and with Victorian late-romanticism) than with the harshly direct language of a genuine "Romance" poet like Villon. The lines above are from "In Durance" (1907), which appeared in Pound's third collection, Personae (… 1909); and what they are struggling to say is after a fashion in keeping with the language that Pound tries to say it in. "S.T." is Coleridge, and the Coleridge text appealed to is the essay "On the Principles of Genial Criticism," which advances a Platonic or neo-Platonic idea of the nature and function of poetry, as Pound's poem does also. Moreover, the neo-Platonic matter of these lines is something that persisted in Pound's thought. And if, as historians of ideas, we were to concentrate on the paraphrasable content of Pound's poetry, we could see such an early poem as saying things which he will still be saying at the end of his life. But it is precisely the radical difference in the manner of saying, early and late, which is crucial. For the experience of reading Pound's Cantos isn't remotely like the experience of reading neo-Platonic romantic poets like Shelley or D. G. Rossetti…. "Pseudo-archaic" is exact for "Aye, I am wistful," and "They that come mewards."… This is romance language in the sense that it is the language of historical romances written in late-Victorian and Edwardian England; it is not a medium in which anything can be communicated forcefully or crisply.
This is, however, only one component in the language of these lines. "Surging of power" belongs in some different idiom altogether, which is impossible to name; the notetaker's telegraphese of "S.T." belongs in another idiom again; and the Greek expressions, "DAEMON" and "Quasi KALOUN," belong in yet another. These last are syntactically quite without anchorage in what offers itself as a normal English sentence. And this abandonment of grammar mirrors accurately the desperation of the poet, who can manage no more than to have these disparate idioms jostle helplessly one against another, though he is possessed of a conviction that they could be articulated one with another, if only he could find the key. At this stage he cannot; and so all that is conveyed is the desperation of the effort and the need. The language is a chronically unstable mix of linguistic elements from the European past, held together by will, by nothing more than the urgency of the poet's need. Their coherence is something wished for and vehemently gestured at, certainly not demonstrated or achieved. The vehemence of the need is quite without parallel among poets writing and publishing in London in the first decade of this century…. (pp. 13-16)
[Pound's peculiar rashness and impetuosity] had everything to do with the fact that [he] was American; that is to say, a poet of the English tongue to whom it came naturally to regard English as just one of the princely dialects of Europe. An American like Pound came to Europe; and if he came to England, it was to one of the provinces of that larger cultural entity. No Edwardian Englishman thought of England that way…. [He] defined himself in his national identity as that which Continental Europe was not. But to a devoted American Europeanist like the young Pound, what was precious about England was not what marked her off from the Continent but what bound her to the Mediterranean heartlands. Hence the unconvincing impetuosity with which the poet of "In Durance" moves from mock-archaic English to Greek…. [Pound] wanted to create or re-create a lingua franca of Greco-Roman Christendom in which English would operate as a sister language with French and Spanish and Italian. The mere mix of "In Durance" was to become the compound language of The Cantos—a compound still perhaps unstable, but not so easily dissoluble.
The author of "In Durance" and of The Spirit of Romance was the author also of Patria Mia (1912), in which he wrote consciously and explicitly as a citizen of the United States, addressing himself specifically to the state of culture, and the prospects for culture, in his native land. (pp. 17-18)
It is in any case highly significant that [Patria Mia], Pound's most obviously and explicitly American book, should have a Latin title. He attempts to foresee a future for America according to paradigms he had learned about in Europe. Neither at this time nor afterward does Pound share the conviction and the hope which as a matter of historical record have fired the cultural achievements of the white man in North America ever since Plymouth Plantation—the hope and belief that the new continent offered a new start, a new Eden for a new Adam, liberated from the corruptions and errors of Europe and forewarned by European history of how to avoid European mistakes. On the contrary, Pound takes it for granted that if America is ever to produce or become a noble civilization, it can do so only by modeling itself on European precedents, precedents that are ultimately or originally Greek and Roman. (pp. 20-1)
Imagism (originally "imagisme," as if by French spelling to borrow the required Parisian éclat) was an exclusively literary movement, whereas the later vorticism claimed to comprehend all the arts and was strongest in painting and sculpture. Yet Pound himself seems to have thought of vorticism as only a prolongation and theoretical elaboration of what he had fought for under the banner of imagism, until imagism was taken away from him, and trivialized, by Amy Lowell. If we ask for the theory of imagism, it is otherwise hard to find; though it can be put together out of certain speculations of T. E. Hulme as early as 1909, at which time the movement had had a sort of aborted birth. But the imagism of 1913, when Pound's energy and impudence made it a talking point in London and Chicago, was not theoretical at all but came across as two or three punchily expressed rules of thumb, as in the famous "A Few Don'ts for an Imagist":
Use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.
Don't use such an expression as "dim lands of peace." It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer's not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol.
Go in fear of abstractions. Don't retell in mediocre verse what has already been done in good prose. Don't think any intelligent person is going to be deceived when you try to shirk all the difficulties of the unspeakably difficult art of good prose by chopping your composition into line lengths….
Don't imagine that the art of poetry is any simpler than the art of music, or that you can please the expert before you have spent at least as much effort on the art of verse as the average piano teacher spends on the art of music.
Be influenced by as many...
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The reader who is not a student of poetry has [a] ground for indifference [towards Pound]. Pound, he has always heard, has no "matter." Granting the "importance" of his verse, granting the possibility that having been for poets fertile it might prove on acquaintance agreeable or beautiful, what has he to do with this sport, a matterless poetry?… "I confess," Eliot once wrote, "that I am seldom interested in what he is saying, but only in the way he says it"; and R. P. Blackmur, "He is all surface and articulation." We notice Eliot's qualification ("seldom") and we are puzzled by an ambiguity in Blackmur's "articulation" (is this jointing or merely uttering?); but on the whole they put authoritatively the...
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Joyce's and Eliot's concern for time certainly needs no emphasis. Everyone has spoken of it. But Pound's concern is probably less widely realized. And this despite the fact that his critics have written significantly about its importance. It is perhaps best, then, to begin with two of the finest of these, with Daniel Pearlman, who has stated Pound's interest strongly ("The Cantos, as I read the poem, is precisely an elaboration of this thesis—that the central problems in all spheres of human involvement must be referred ultimately to a consideration of the nature of time."—The Barb of Time, 1969), and with George Dekker, who finds in Pound's changing attitude toward "the tyranny of place and time"...
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