Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats, and Modernism investigates for the first time in detail the three winters the poets Ezra Pound and William Butler Yeats spent together in southern England in the years 1913 to 1916. James Longenbach denies the common view that the major significance of this time was Pound’s moving of Yeats in the direction of a more concrete, modern poetic style. Instead, he argues that Yeats had a greater impact on Pound and on the direction of modernism than has been previously recognized.
Pound had admired and learned from Yeats’s poetry long before he met him. He said that he came to London in 1908 to find out from the greatest living poet how he did it. When Pound’s future mother-in-law and Yeats’s confidante, Olivia Shakespeare, introduced the two poets in 1909, Pound finally gained admission into the cultural inner circle that he had sought all of his life.
Yeats and Pound had contact over the years immediately following, largely because Yeats included Pound in his weekly poetry discussion, but their greatest mutual influence came in the winters of 1913 to 1916, when Pound worked as Yeats’s personal secretary and fellow poet in a small rural cottage in Sussex, England. At Stone Cottage, Pound relieved Yeats of time-consuming clerical duties and read to him at night to save his failing eyesight. At the same time, each worked to promote the career of the other. Pound repeated to anyone who would listen, especially Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine, that Yeats was not only the greatest living poet but also the only one who was continuing to develop. Yeats, an international figure long before meeting Pound, promoted Pound, twenty years his junior, as a leader in the generation of young poets newly arriving on the scene.
Though this literary relationship is well-known, it has been little explored. The most common view is that the major significance of the Stone Cottage period was Pound’s influencing of Yeats in the direction of the Imagist principles: specificity of image, hardness, conciseness, shorter lines, more natural rhythms, and the like. Yeats gave credence to this view in a 1914 speech, in which he credited Pound with having alerted him to excessive abstraction in his work, something against which Yeats himself had rebelled in his youth: “We rebelled against rhetoric, and now there is a group of younger poets who dare to call us rhetorical. When I returned to London from Ireland, I had a young man go over all my work with me to eliminate the abstract. This was an American poet, Ezra Pound.”
Longenbach argues, however, that Pound’s direct influence was minimal, amounting to a few minor suggestions in poems here and there. Yeats, he says, had long been casting about for a harder, more modern style, and had little to learn about writing poetry from the comparative neophyte Pound. Longenbach perhaps tries to make this assessment seem more unusual than it is. No one had credited Pound with a major role in Yeats’s career, and others have pointed out forces at work in Yeats’s life in the first decade of the century, such as his work as manager of the Abbey Theatre, that had already moved his poetry away from its 1890’s dreaminess.
More important than Longenbach’s assessment of Pound’s influence on Yeats is his argument that Yeats had a great influence on Pound and thereby on the direction of literary modernism. Longenbach ranges far beyond the actual events at Stone Cottage to argue persuasively that Yeats reinforced certain tendencies in Pound and introduced new ones that indirectly shaped Pound, his poetry, and the cultural movement, modernism, with which he is so closely identified.
Already present in Pound was a tendency which his experience with Yeats reinforced and deepened: a desire to be part of a cultural elite who would preserve true civilization through a period of decline of the bourgeoisie. Even before leaving the United States he had written in a poem, “I am homesick after mine own kind/ And ordinary people touch me not.” Yeats was one of Pound’s “own kind,” a man whose own elitist tendencies had been greatly strengthened by the maddening frustrations of trying to steer Dublin’s Abbey Theatre through a sea of ignorant opinions and public controversy.
(The entire section is 1766 words.)