Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1847
This volume of letters between two makers of modernism records the dialogue of two obstreperous craftsmen over a lifetime of controversy and creativity. The letters are short on many of the things for which typically one pries into famous people’s private correspondence. There is little that is directly personal here. Both men rejected their time’s preoccupation with the probing of the unconscious, and their letters reveal little about any private selves that might lie behind their public images.
Neither does one find here those unguarded reflections on the human dilemma or on their own hopes and fears that often make writers’ letters worth reading. Wyndham Lewis gives a clue to the nature of the correspondence when he suggests that Ezra Pound’s letters “can be of no interest to anyone but a writer. It is a craftsman speaking throughout about his craft, and the single-minded concentration is magnificent.” Lewis is right to say that Pound is first and last concerned with the arts and artists but wrong to suggest that only fellow writers could be interested in such things.
Lewis’ observation notwithstanding, what one has in these letters is not so much technical talk about the craft of writing or about specific works as the record of Pound’s tireless efforts to promote and Lewis’ ambivalent feelings about being promoted. In the process, one also discovers interesting tidbits from the early days of modernist manifestos and movements and, almost accidentally, insights into Pound’s decline from the heights of those heady early days.
Editor Timothy Materer groups the correspondence into four parts, the first beginning just before the start of World War I when Pound and Lewis were busy inventing Vorticism and trying to give it the look of a major movement. Their letters reveal the nuts and bolts of their efforts—dealings with printers, publishers, patrons, and fellow artists—but little of their vision. Materer provides background introductions and explanatory notes for this period and for the others to aid the uninitiated reader. His introduction to Pound and all the supporting material in the book are finely done, enlightening without obtruding.
The brief months when they worked together on Vorticism and Blast (1914), Vorticism’s great, pink, public manifesto, were also the last in which they had close personal contact. Blast, however, continues to echo throughout their correspondence over the years. Pound, especially, liked to refer back to those early days when they were young and full of fire and determined to create a new renaissance. A decade after the first issue of Blast, Pound writes from Italy to Lewis,I have just, ten years an a bit after its appearance, and in this far distant locus, taken out a copy of the great MAGENTA cover’d opusculus. We were hefty guys in them days; an of what has come after us, we seem to have survived without a great mass of successors.
Although there is very little self-pity in Pound’s letters, even when his circumstances are at their worst, one detects here and in later years the wistfulness of a campaigner in a revolution that never quite succeeded.
Vorticism died aborning when Lewis went off to war. The letters exchanged with Pound while Lewis first trained in England and then went off to fight in France are perhaps the most interesting of the entire collection. Lewis, never one to suffer fools quietly, chaffs under the feeling that he is surrounded by idiots, who, not incidentally, are often his military superiors and hold his life in their hands. At times, the situation elicited from him his famous gift for invective, as in describing a fellow officer whose dangerous job Lewis had volunteered to take over:The young man in question,—a sharp-featured, horse-toothed, narrow-browed, vain, crotchety young board-school master accepted my offer at once as though he were conferring a great favour upon me. Why treat these animals like human beings? I shall not in future offer my skin in place of the cheap pink trash that covers the absence of brain, heart and stomach of pedagogic or other colleague.
Other humorous incidents (both bilious and sanguine) are recounted, including Lewis’ futile attempt to explain Pound’s Imagism movement (1912-1914) to a befuddled commanding officer. At other times, however, Lewis attempts to convey the great devastation, spiritual and physical, of this war which altered Europe’s way of seeing itself. His 1917 description of no-man’s-land shows his painter’s eye and novelist’s gift:The moment you get in this stretch of land you feel the change from the positions you have come from. A watchfulness, fatigue and silence penetrates everything in it. You meet a small party of infantry slowly going up or coming back. Their faces are all dull, their eyes turned inwards in sallow thought or savage resignation; you would say revulsed, if it were not too definite a word.
Pound’s response to Lewis’ war letters was typically practical. Lewis was valuable as an artist; the arts were the key to any society, so Lewis could best serve his country and civilization by staying alive to produce more art. Pound’s characteristic brusque straightforwardness, perhaps masking a genuine concern for Lewis, typifies the tone of many letters: “I can not see that the future of the arts deamns [sic] that you should be covered with military distinctions. It is equally obvious that you should not be allowed to spill your gore in heathen and furrin places.”
If one sometimes thinks that Pound only valued even his friends in terms of the contribution he thought they could make to arts and letters, one nevertheless sees throughout this correspondence that Pound would work tirelessly and selflessly for anyone whose work he valued. Pound not only placed Lewis’ writing and sold his paintings, but he also lent him money when he had none to lend, worked to get him a commission in the army, softened up publishers and patrons, stored and shipped his artwork, and agreed to be his executor (and even to take partial responsibility for his illegitimate children) if Lewis were killed in the war.
Usually Lewis was grateful for all this. At times, however, Pound’s activities on his behalf struck him as those of a well-intentioned but suffocating mother. In the mid-1920’s, Lewis dropped out of sight to work on a mammoth prose manuscript that was later cut up into many different books. He obviously wanted to be left alone. His reply in 1925 to another of Pound’s endless promptings about possible projects demonstrates his exasperation at Pound’s tireless art entrepreneuring and more than a little of Lewis’ famous testy paranoia:Please note the following: Because in the glorious days of Marinetti we were associated to some extent in publicity campaigns, that does not give you a mandate to interfere when you think fit, with or without my consent, with my career. If you launch at me and try and force on me a scheme which I regard as malapropos and which is liable to embarrass me, you will not find me so docile at [as?] Eliot.
That Pound could be seemingly unfazed by such a response to his unselfish efforts is a testimony to his lifelong practice of putting art before his personal well-being. His reply to Lewis, however, reveals that while he was almost incapable of being insulted, Pound was no less willing than Lewis to say exactly what he thought. After assuring Lewis that he will do nothing on his behalf without permission, he closes as follows: “There are some matters in which you really do behave like, and some <some not all> lines in this letter of yours in which you really do write like, a God damn fool.”
Unfortunately both Pound and Lewis were capable of more dangerous foolishness. Lewis’ dabbling with Fascism was damaging but relatively brief. Pound was more seriously infected. All the good aesthetic judgment of his youth was no protection against the illusions of Italian Fascism that he embraced so uncritically. Pound became as tireless (and tiresome) in trying to convert Lewis to his vision and to get him involved in propaganda schemes as he was earlier in regard to art and literature. The ever-present anti-Semitism of the letters becomes even uglier, especially in the light of historical events that provide their context. To his credit, Lewis rebuffed Pound’s efforts and tried to disabuse him of some of his more persistent illusions.
Pound’s tragic decline culminated, following World War II, in his long confinement among the insane at Saint Elizabeths Hospital in Washington, D.C.—the alternative to a trial for treason. At this point, the two former Vorticists had not seen each other for many years, and both had fallen on difficult times. Lewis initially attempts to make light of Pound’s situation, not knowing it would take thirteen years for Pound to gain his freedom: “I am told that you believe yourself to be Napoleon—or is it Mussolini? What a pity you did not choose Buddha while you were about it, instead of a politician!”
As the years dragged on, their lifelong roles changed somewhat. Whereas Pound had always been the promoter and encourager, now Lewis tries to encourage Pound, not least by reminding him of his important contributions to the arts. Lewis is still feisty and straightforward, however, in a letter that once again rejects Pound’s hobbyhorse efforts. He declares, once and for all, “Do understand that I am politically a complete agnostic. No theory of the State interests me in the slightest,” adding, “You are in a chaos. Why not face the fact and sing the chaos, songbird that you are?”
From the 1930’s on, Pound’s letters became increasingly cryptic and typographically outrageous. By the Saint Elizabeths years, they are at times almost incomprehensible. There is something deeply sad about Lewis’ brutally honest question in a letter a year before his death: “Your last letter undeciperable [sic], just cannot imagine what lies beneath the words. Have you anything really to say?” It is a question some still ask about the Cantos (1925-1968), the work to which Pound devoted fifty years of his life.
There are many things of interest to be found in a correspondence between two creative geniuses that stretched over forty years. Among them are their views of other writers, such as D. H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, James Joyce, and, more often than any other, T. S. Eliot. Lewis was obviously more than a little irritated that the young American, whom he and Pound had published in Blast so many years before, was, at the end of all their lives, not only lionized and comfortable but pious and proper to boot. Having called each other Ez-roar and WynDAMN over the years, they took delight in referring to Eliot by names such as “Rev. Possum” and “His somnolences.”
These letters will be of more interest to students of modern literature than anyone else. In that somewhat narrow vein, however, they are significant and worthwhile reading.
Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 34
Kirkus Reviews. LIII, January 15, 1985, p. 80.
Library Journal. CX, April 15, 1985, p. 68.
National Review. XXXVII, June 14, 1985, p. 45.
New Leader. LXVIII, April 22, 1985, p. 16.
The New York Times Book Review. XC, June 30, 1985, p. 21.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXVII, January 11, 1985, p. 64.
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