(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

In five chapters, Sieburth pursues a scholarly discussion on how Remy de Gourmont provided for Ezra Pound “both by personal example and his work, something far more important—a range of instigations, a series of incitements to experiment and discovery.” Erudite and well-documented, the book elicits “affinities rather than stress debts” in relation to Gourmont and Pound.

Gourmont (1858-1915), acclaimed as a champion of the “modernist” spirit and the literary avant-garde in the early twentieth century, has had considerable impact on the life and thought of such literary figures as Alfred Jarry, Guillaume Apollinaire, André Gide, T. E. Hulme, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, Kenneth Burke, and Malcolm Cowley. For Eliot, “Of all modern critics perhaps Remy de Gourmont had most the general intelligence of Aristotle.” Pound regarded him as a “polymath culture hero”—a uniquely “civilized mind.” In 1934 he asserted, “My generation needed Gourmont,” for he aroused “the senses of the imagination, preparing the mind for receptivities,” to quote him from his Literary Essays edited by Eliot.

Pound first started reading Gourmont in 1912; a few months later Imagism was launched. This was a formative period in his experimentation with the classical quantitative measure and various other metrical devices. His reading of Litanies de la Rose with its liturgical rhythm gave Pound’s formulation of the theory of absolute rhythm a start. Hugh Kenner suggests that Gourmont’s le Latin mystique du moyen âge may have given Pound the idea. “Canto XLV”—the famous “Usura” Canto—echoes the hieratic cadences of the Litanies. However, as Donald Davie shows in Ezra Pound: Poet as Sculptor, Pound did not adopt Gourmont’s experiments with line and strophe length. Despite his initial exuberant enthusiasm for Gourmont’s poetry, Pound later on rejected his poetic and symbolist trappings, but retained the French writer’s “curious evocational form, the curious repetition, the personal sweeping rhythm.” In 1919 he would remark, Gourmont was a poet “more by possessing a certain quality of mind than by virtue of having written fine poems.”

A defense of the Symbolist movement and a scholarly anthology of forgotten Christian Latin poets, le Latin mystique du moyen âge illustrated how within the past tradition innovations and experimentations could be performed. For Pound this was both a confirmation and an inspiration in connection with his own poetics. Le Latin mystique du moyen âge viewed Latin as the language of the intellectual and cosmopolitan culture—an idea which Pound held to be true. Looking for an ideal paideuma in his Cantos, he returned to the path that le Latin mystique du moyen âge follows. It is Goddeschalk’s visionary sequence of address to Christ sensually evoking his love for Mary Magdalene—“amas ut facias pulchram”—which made a lasting impression on Pound. He translated it in his “Psychology and Troubadours,” later reprinting it in Confucius to Cummings, Gourmont has singled out the Latin phrase as the core of Goddeschalk’s visions. Pound’s 1919 essay on Gourmont juxtaposes the phrase with Propertius’ “Ingenium nobis ipsa puella fecit” and with the King of Navarre’s “De fine amor vient science et beauté.” He frequently returns to it in his Cantos, and for the final time in “Canto XCVIII”: “’Ut facias pulchra’m’/there is no sight without fire.” Along with le Latin mystique du moyen âge, Gourmont’s Lettres à I’Amazone shaped Pound’s “conception of love, passion, emotion as an intellectual instigation,” as he says in the Literary Essays. In sharing Gourmont’s admiration for Dante, he also felt that love was the supreme and most intense form of the creative mind. Sieburth, unfortunately, does not analytically examine these ideas in Gourmont and Pound, because their views on love, sex, women, and emotion do raise many questions and doubts. Nor does he adequately treat the direct influence of Schopenhauer (Die Welt ist meine Vorstellung) and Locke (Nihil in intellectu quod non prius fuerit in sensu) on Gourmont. His last chapter in the book, “The Natural Philosophy of Love,” is a perceptive and charged essay on the impact of Gourmont’s Physique de I’amour, which Pound translated as The Philosophy of Love, on Pound as a person and poet.

As passionate a libertarian as Gourmont was, he totally rejected the theological tyranny regarding sexuality and condemned “the debasement of the natural into a fallen world.” “The puritan,” Pound writes in Guide to Kulchur, “is a pervert.” In his thinking, capitalism—usury-tolerance—and the debasement and prostitution of human sexuality are mutually inclusive (cantos “XIV,” “XV,” “XXIX”) and “contra naturan.” Against this life-denying repression, Pound celebrates the Blakean...

(The entire section is 2068 words.)