Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2660

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.

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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 his artist’s mask. One sees his real grief when Margaret Craven commits suicide. Here is the private Pound, wearing only the masks one wears with the closest friend—a Pound not often seen in the public biographies.

The bulk of the letters traces the lengthy courtship between Pound and Dorothy. Both were clearly enamored of each other almost from the moment they met in 1909. For five years, the letters trace that growing affection and daily trivia until their marriage in 1914. It was a courtship by mail, for each year of their courtship they were together only four months at most. The annual routine of the Shakespear family caused most of the separations. Their London Kensington home was used only in the fall and spring. In the summer and winter, they divided their time among country friends and relatives such as Henry Tucker, stepfather of Georgie Hyde-Lees, the eventual bride of Yeats. These country visits were a way for Henry Shakespear and his family to conserve money. Olivia and Dorothy’s long country summers and winters, even their trip to Italy, were cheaper than living in London.

The mobile family life of the Shakespears was part of a Victorian pattern that had extended, almost intact, into the twentieth century. While, for the wealthy, the traditional country-house visits provided exciting parties and the possibility for daughters to meet eligible young men, for the less affluent (though by the standards of the 1980’s, quite well off) genteel class, country visits were more often tedious, as Dorothy’s letter of March 21, 1913, shows: “All the wickedness of the past generations seems to be here—all the boredom of my aunts, and the rebellion of one and the utter squashing of individuality of another.” Like Jane Austen’s young ladies, Dorothy’s generation literally was not trained to do anything: Witness her near panic at the prospect of a month-long honeymoon without a cook or charwoman. In 1911, Dorothy jokingly remarked that a friend had arranged a most remunerative profession for her: “flower decorator at private houses.” A month later, Dorothy referred to herself as part of the “unemployed.” Traditionally, young ladies were supposed to read, paint or sketch, play a bit of music, embroider, and find a husband who could support them in the same life-style—a tradition that Dorothy’s solicitor father much admired.

In such a world, Dorothy Shakespear was far more fortunate than most daughters: Her parents at least provided her with the training and opportunities to make the most of her life. Her reading ranged from classic to modern authors; she was capable of holding intelligent literary discussions with Pound when they first met and later critiqued his poetry and theories. She knew the difference between mediocre and excellent music and praised the London production of Vaslar Nijinsky’s ballet to Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps as “quite a useful reaction after ’90s A.D.” She was also skilled at sketching and painting, which she found self-nurturing and artistically disciplining.

Olivia Shakespear, who seemed on the surface to be a model Victorian mother, was no ordinary woman. During 1885, she had a passionate affair with Yeats. Her keen interests in music, art, and literature made her an interesting companion rather than merely a chaperon for her daughter Dorothy on their country and European trips. Olivia’s Kensington literary salon attracted the most illustrious artists and thinkers of her time, men with whom Dorothy mixed on equal terms.

The long courtship of Pound and Dorothy, quite normal for its time, seems today an impossible situation. Believing Pound to be a possibly acceptable suitor for her daughter, Olivia arranged and chaperoned the 1910 visit to Sirmione on Lake Garda where Pound was staying. It was Olivia, however, who forbade Pound to write to Dorothy while he was in the United States for nine months in 1910—an edict Pound apparently accepted. By October, 1911, when Pound was twenty-six and she twenty-five, Dorothy suggested that if he ever expected to see her alone, he should arrange an interview with her father, which resulted in twice-weekly visits. After an exchange of letters with his prospective son-in-law, however, Henry Shakespear decided that Pound was not financially ready to enter marriage.

In March of 1911, when Pound reargued his case with new financial prospects, it was Olivia who took over the interview, questioning his contracts and “methods of pursuing life.” She instructed Pound not to bother her husband for a while. Dorothy and Pound accepted such decisions with a grace astonishing to readers of the 1980’s. No matter how bohemian Pound tried to appear with his gaudy clothes, jeweled ear, and literary bombast, both he and Dorothy were Victorian children. They did not openly rebel against the social order of which they were part. Certainly, Pound’s later attitudes toward marriage and women have little to do with this period of his life. Neither was Dorothy a rebellious daughter. When Pound bought her a ring, her only comfort was wearing it around her neck at night on a chain, for her father would not recognize their engagement. During the winter of 1912, Olivia cut their visitations to once a week, arguing that it was a financial imperative that Dorothy shift her affections to a man who could support her rather than end up a compromised demi-vierge. Pound persisted, patiently and impatiently, but never challenging the conventions that the Shakespears enforced. For five years, while he was advancing his career and becoming a controversial force in the modernist movement, Pound played the marriage game by the old rules. It was not until 1914 that he and Dorothy were married, with her parents’ blessing.

In their careful texts, annotations, and appendices for Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters, 1909-1914, Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz have established a model for literary scholars of the future: Few, if any, editions of letters can match the high standards of this volume. Because of the editorial work, the volume can stand alone, even for a reader who is unfamiliar with Pound’s work and life. Never confusing “modern” with “contemporary,” Litz and Omar Pound have carefully treated each letter as a historical artifact, identifying persons, places, events, and allusions while pointing out their significance in annotated footnotes following each numbered letter. The numbering of each letter makes it easier for scholars to refer to an item without having to list multiple pages; the annotations often provide information that few but full-time Pound experts would recognize. When Henry Hope Shakespear asks for financial verification from Pound’s father before allowing his daughter to marry the poet, the editors include in a footnote part of Shakespear’s reply to the senior Pound. Other footnotes include references and quotations from Pound’s letters to other parties that shed light on the letter at hand. If either Pound or Dorothy writes of reading proofs, the editors identify the work if it is not named in the letter. When Pound speaks of cutting Canzoni, they provide not only a list of what was cut and where it later appeared but also give Pound’s later thoughts on the process. Nicknames are explained and, in further letters, identified in brackets. When the editors are speculating, they say so, providing a carefully qualified and plausible explanation. When Pound refers to reviews of his work unavailable to the reader, the editors print the review or relevant parts of it. To expand on references in the letters, they also include two previously uncollected reviews by Pound. When a letter refers to a Pound poem, the footnotes provide not only the title but also the relevant lines. If a person or event in the letters shows up in later Pound Cantos, they give the reader the number and quote the section. In addition, Litz and Omar Pound give a clear explanation of their selection process, including their retention of first-draft material from Dorothy’s letters that she altered in final draft. In their biographical index, the editors provide a treasure trove of information on the now lesser-known characters who appear throughout the letters, such as T. E. Hulme, Violet Hunt, Frederick Manning, Walter Rummel, Florence Farr, and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, as well as interesting and generally unknown information about the parents of both correspondents. The reader will also delight in the faultless index and the precise family genealogical charts which clarify the many family relationships in the correspondence.

The scholar will not find the facts in this volume particularly startling. What makes the letters important are the voices speaking in their time; facts become part of a life. The Selected Letters of Ezra Pound, edited by D. D. Paige (1950), contains few selections from this seminal period and seldom allows the reader to hear the private Pound speaking. In contrast, these letters between Pound and Dorothy give the reader the rare chance to meet the great man when he is being as ardent and as silly as all lovers are likely to be. Here is the poet in his youth before he became the legend. These letters also help to explain what it was that Pound became. The diligent scholarship of the editors—with their voluminous footnotes, short biographies of the lesser known, and useful illustrations—clearly illuminates the era before the Pound Era took hold: the cultural and social world of Edwardian London in those last years before World War I. Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz have produced that remarkably scarce commodity: a classic volume that probably will never have to be revised and will always be of value.


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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29

Kirkus Reviews. LII, April 15, 1984, p. 406.

Library Journal. CIX, June 1, 1984, p. 1126.

National Review. XXXVI, June 1, 1984, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXIX, September 16, 1984, p. 3.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXV, April 13, 1984, p. 60.

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