From the beginning, Ezra Pound’s problem was how to re-create what he found meaningful in the past in a way that would yet sound new to his contemporaries. He solved the problem partially in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley (1920) and completely in Cantos (1948). That he did solve it is attested by the enormous influence of his poetry and criticism on the poetic idiom, an influence felt even by those who find it difficult to understand his works. The solution to what was essentially a problem of form meant, inevitably, any number of false starts that the later Pound sought, quite humanly, to ignore.
In Personae, his 1926 collection of shorter poems, Pound notes that the collection includes all of his poems up to that date except for the unfinished Cantos. The statement is misleading, however. The volume contains a relatively small selection of the very early Pound, the poet who, with no difficulty, had two of his poems published in The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (“Ballad for Gloom” and “The Portrait,” neither reprinted in Personae), and the Pound who bears such clear resemblance to the Pre-Raphaelites, Algernon Charles Swinburne, the poetry of the 1890’s, William Butler Yeats, and Robert Browning. Of the 145 poems printed in Pound’s first volumes—A Lume Spento (1908), A Quinzaine for This Yule (1908), Personae, Exultations (1909), and Canzoni (1911)—only 42 survive in the Personae volume of 1926. Basically, this is the Pound concerned with medieval themes, Provençal forms, and the tradition of the aesthetes generally.
In both imagery and idea, “Grace Before Song,” from A Lume Spento, bespeaks the aesthetic ideal of the 1890’s. Concern with fleeting moods, lack of concern with society—these attitudes describe at least one aspect of that era’s decadence. In line with the English decadence, Pound, too, drew heavily on Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites. The medieval atmosphere of the Pre-Raphaelite ballad is also to be found in his “Ballad Rosalind.”
The Pre-Raphaelite ideal of feminine beauty is never absent from these early poems; indeed, it never quite seems to have left Pound. As for the impact of Swinburne, it is defined by Pound himself in the reverential “Salve O Pontifex—for Swinburne; an hemi-chaunt.” Of the early Yeats, Pound was almost a disciple. One critic has pointed out that “The Tree” is a compendium of Yeatsian influences. Pound clearly echoes Yeats’s opening lines from “He Thinks of His Past Greatness When a Part of the Constellations of Heaven,” with their references to the hazel tree and grief for all things known.
The central fact of these early volumes is the tremendous variety of influences and modes they reveal. Pound shows himself to be a seeker who is willing to try anything at least once. These early volumes also reflect Pound’s concern with translation as a means of providing techniques for the developing poet and insight into earlier states of mind. At this time, Pound’s translations, mainly from Provençal and early Italian, were unfortunately colored by Pre-Raphaelite diction and turns of phrase. Thus he not only failed to “make it new,” to quote a favorite phrase of Pound, but also produced obfuscated translations.
Ripostes, published in 1912, is generally taken to mark a turning point in his poetry, but there is still a good deal of the old preciosity in “A Virginal” and “Silet.” The best poems (and some of the worst) in this volume are translations and adaptations. As always, Pound is concerned not with literal translation but with a revival of the spirit of the poet and his time; ultimately, the...
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