Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1540
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 translation is as much Pound’s work as it is that of the original poet. Ripostes contains Pound’s famous version of “The Seafarer,” for it was inevitable that Pound should attempt at least one example of Anglo-Saxon form. (He repeated it later in “Canto I.”) The volume also contains “The Return,” modeled on a poem by Henri de Régnier. The poem deals with the return of the Greek gods, who, to Pound, represent eternally recurrent states of mind that he later defines again in Cantos. It stands as a metaphor of Pound’s efforts to make what is still alive in the past speak to and help salvage the present. It also suggests a shift in allegiance away from the poets of the English decadence to the French Symbolists.
By the time he published Ripostes, Pound had begun to teach others, becoming a propagandist for the Imagist movement, with its stress on compactness and concreteness. In 1914, he edited the anthology Des Imagistes, and in the following year he published what was essentially a set of variations on the Imagist mode in Cathay, a book of translations from the Chinese based on notes left by the expert on Japanese art Ernest Fenollosa. Inaccurate as they are, these translations are still considered the best introduction to Chinese poetry available to Westerners. Pound knew not a word of Chinese; clearly, his ability to work with Fenollosa’s notes was the result of a deeply felt affinity with the nature of Chinese poetry, its avoidance of abstract statement, and its reliance on concrete imagery to suggest mood and idea. In the famous “River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter,” the wife’s sense of loss and desire for her absent husband are suggested not by direct assertions but by indirect description.
In 1916, again working from Fenollosa’s notes, Pound, who knew no more Japanese than he did Chinese, published “Noh” or Accomplishment. Again inaccurate in many ways, the work made Japanese drama available to the Western mind. In the same year, Pound published Lustra, which presented the work of Pound’s Imagist period, a Pound free of clutter. Certainly Pound seemed to think so, as can be noted in “Salutation the Second.”
The sardonic attitude toward his audience is repeated in a number of poems: “Tenzone,” “The Condolence,” “Salutation,” “Causa,” “Commission,” “Further Instructions,” and “Salvationists.” The satiric muse has taken possession of Pound, and it is employed to pillory many of the states of mind later satirized in Cantos as useless, confused, uncreative. Among these satiric poems are “The Garden,” “Les Millwin,” “The Bellaires,” and “Our Contemporaries.” Seeking hardness and directness, Pound had turned to the Latin and Greek epigrammatists, and a number of the poems reflect this study. Though scarcely Imagistic, the epigrams—“The New Cake of Soap,” “Epitaph,” “Arides,” “The Bath Tub,” and a number of others—are concentrated and in this way reflect one of the major concerns of the Imagistic movement. The translations, too, have shed their Pre-Raphaelite haze, a fact exhibited in the translation from the Provençal of Bertrans de Born. Imagist poems proper, as well as adaptations from the Chinese, appear, including what has become the archetype of the Imagist poem, “In a Station of the Metro.”
The relatively bald statements of the satires, the sharp pictures of the Imagist poems, are mingled with poems that show the astonishing qualities of Pound’s ear in such lyrics as “The Spring,” an adaptation of Ibycus, and “Dance Figure,” which is apparently based on the mood of “The Song of Songs.”
Lustra gives the impression of an author testing his technical skills in preparation for a major work. That work came in 1920 with Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, which a number of critics consider Pound’s “breakthrough,” the poem in which he became, finally, modern. Other long poems of the period are the culminations of earlier developments: Translations as a means of re-creating an earlier poetic mood may be seen in “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” satire in “Moeurs Contemporaines” and “Villanelle: The Psychological Hour.” A sequence rather than a single poem, Hugh Selwyn Mauberley was new in its tight juxtaposition of disparate moods and images, in its containment of a complex of attitudes and experiences, and in its careful, often ironic, control of tone. The poem maintains a duality and a deliberate ambivalence that can be confusing. It mocks, at the same time that it bids farewell to, the aesthete in Pound.
If the aesthete is out of step with his time, the time itself was not much to be proud of, and several poems deal with its pervasive tawdriness. World War I, the ultimate shock to the aesthete, raised the question of the relevance of art and culture in a period of confusion and change. Neither the Pre-Raphaelites nor the aesthetes seemed to have very much to say in such a time because they failed to reflect the mood of the decade. Such successful writers as the pseudonymous “Mr. Nixon” (who probably represents Arnold Bennett) were seen to be as tawdry as their age. In the tenth poem of Pound’s sequence he states that in an age of cheapness and insincerity that is impatient of craftsmanship or indifferent to the heroic example of the artist, the stylist has sought shelter from the world. In the second part of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, the poet drifts toward death, unable to create what “the age demanded” and also unable to provide what the age needed, poetry that would relate his private passions to the society around him. The ultimate confrontation of poet and society took place in Cantos, the long, major poem on which Pound was already then at work.
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