Ezra Pound and the Symbolist Inheritance

Ezra Pound and the Symbolist Inheritance

by Scott Hamilton

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In this revisionary study of Ezra Pound's poetics, Scott Hamilton exposes the extent of the modernist poet's debt to the French romantic and symbolist traditions. Whereas previous critics have focused on a single influence, Hamilton explores a broad spectrum of French poets, including Thophile Gautier, Tristan Corbire, Jules Laforgue, Remy de Gourmont, Henri de Rgnier


In this revisionary study of Ezra Pound's poetics, Scott Hamilton exposes the extent of the modernist poet's debt to the French romantic and symbolist traditions. Whereas previous critics have focused on a single influence, Hamilton explores a broad spectrum of French poets, including Thophile Gautier, Tristan Corbire, Jules Laforgue, Remy de Gourmont, Henri de Rgnier, Jules Romains, Laurent Tailhade, Paul Verlaine, and Stphane Mallarm. This exploration of Pound's canon demonstrates his logic in borrowing from the French tradition as well as a paradoxical circularity to his poetic development. Hamilton begins by explaining how Pound read Gautier's poetry as an example of Parnassianism and of the "satirical realism" of Flaubert and the modern novelistic tradition. He reveals, however, a crucial blind spot in Pound's poetic vision that facilitated his return to precisely those romantic and proto-symbolist elements in Gautier that were celebrated by Baudelaire and Mallarm, and that Pound, as a modern poet, felt obliged to repress. Arguing that Pound's response to symbolism was not specifically modernist, Hamilton shows how his dual attraction to the lyric and prose traditions, to symbolism and realism, and to the visionary and the historical helps us better to understand our own post-modern sensibility.

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Ezra Pound and the Symbolist Inheritance

By Scott Hamilton


Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06924-1



"From the colour the nature & by the nature the sign!" —(90/619)

Manier savamment une langue, c'est pratiquer une espèce de sorcellerie évocatoire. C'est alors que la couleur parle, comme une voix profonde et vibrante; que Ies monuments se dressent et font saillie sur l'espace profond; que Ies animaux et les plantes, représentants du laid et du mal, articulent leur grimace non équivoque; que le parfum provoque la pensée et le souvenir correspondants; que la passion murmure ou rugit son langage éternellement semblable. —Charles Baudelaire, "Théophile Gautier," Oeuvres

Gautier soon became Pound's miglior fabbro, serving both as a personal inspiration and as a germinal master anticipating his own version of modernism. Gautier's influence begins to be felt as early as 1912 and continues unabated throughout the twenties. In the 1913 letter to Harriet Monroe where Pound criticizes Baudelaire and Verlaine, he continues by saying that "Gautier and de Gourmont carry forward the art itself' (SL, 23). Later, in a 1920 letter to James Joyce, Pound writes, "I cling to the rock of Gautier, deluding myself perhaps with the idea that he did journalism for years without becoming an absolute shit" (P/J, 174). And as late as 1928, Pound could still say, "Gautier j'ai étudié et je le révère" (SL, 218). According to Pound, Gautier's poetry of the thirties "did in France very much what remained for the men of 'the nineties' to accomplish in England. An examination of what Gautier wrote in 'the thirties' will show a similar beauty, a similar sort of technique" (LE, 285). Put simply, "Théophile Gautier is, I suppose, the next man who can write" (SL, 89). Pound's insistence that Gautier was sixty years ahead of his time is crucial to his vision of modernism, for if Émaux et Camées constitutes yet another advance, Gautier becomes a "modernist" by default, and Pound can truly go back to the future.

However, as Ford Madox Ford's dramatic criticism of Canzoni made abundantly clear to Pound, modern poetry could no longer sustain itself by taking the highroad of l'art pour l'art because it was now competing with the prose realism practiced so well by Ford. As Pound would later argue, "During the last century or century and a half, prose has, perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the second or third time, arisen to challenge the poetic pre-eminence. That is to say, Coeur Simple, by Flaubert, is probably more important than Théophile Gautier's Carmen, etc." (LE, 26). But the equivocation in this statement—that is, "Coeur Simple" is probably more important than "Carmen"—insists less on the works' differences than it does on the close proximity of Gautier's poetic to what Pound would later define as "prose constatation." Pound believed that he had found in Gautier a poet who had bridged the gap between poetry and prose: "Perfectly plain statements like his 'Carmen est maigre' should teach one a number of things" (SL, 89).

Pound's unshakeable belief in Gautier's "perfectly plain statements" indicates a close relationship between Gautier's poetic and Pound's own Imagist doctrine of 1912, and both Pound's and Eliot's homages to "Carmen" help to substantiate his later claim that "la technique des poètes frangais était certainement en dtat de servir d'éducation aux poètes de ma langue—de temps de Gautier, jusqu'à 1912" [the technique of the French poets was certainly available as a means to educate poets writing in my language from the time of Gautier until 1912] (SL, 217). Without attempting to adjudicate between the respective literary merits of Flaubert's "Coeur simple" and Gautier's "Carmen," I think it would be safe to say that what Pound values in "Carmen" is the direct subject-verb syntax comprised of weighted substantives and the minimal use of poetically descriptive adjectives. The poem opens with a flat constatation worthy of Catullus and is governed by the simple copula:

    Carmen est maigre,—un trait de bistre
    Cerne son oeil de gitana.
    Ses cheveux sont d'un noir sinistre,
    Sa peau, le diable la tanna.

    Les femmes disent qu'elle est laide,
    Mais tous Ies hommes en sont fous

    [Carmen is thin,—charcoal eyeliner
    Rings her gypsy eye.
    A sinister black her hair
    And the devil tanned her skin.

    The women say she's ugly,
    But all the men are crazy about her]

Gautier's chiseled style highlights the phrase, the "perfectly plain statement," and gains in density with his emphasis on substantives and his use of a realistic and often highly technical vocabulary. Even Baudelaire adopts almost Flaubertian terms to describe Gautier as "ce magnifique dictionnaire dont Ies feuillets, remués par un souffle divin, s'ouvrent tout juste pour laisser jaillir le mot propre, le mot unique" [this magnificent dictionary whose pages are turned by a divine breath and open to the exact word, the only word]. And when images and metaphors are employed, they are more frequently descriptive than they are a means of access to an imaginary realm. As David Kelley has suggested, Gautier's poetry contains "gammes d'images évocatrices dont l'effet est d'éblouir Le lecteur et de l'empêcher d'en approfondir les possibilités de signification" [a whole set of evocative images that work to dazzle and blind the reader and to prevent him or her from getting to the bottom of their meaning]. Gautier's "angoisse provoquée par la profondeur métaphysique," says Kelley, results in "une forme de superficialité, celle d'une vie païenne, faite de sensations et de surfaces" [Gautier's anxiety provoked by a metaphysical depth (results in) a form of superficiality, that of a pagan sensibility made up of sensations and of surfaces]. This description of Gautier's poetry is suggestive of Pound's as it begins to evolve into his later style: despite Pound's emphasis on the verbal nature of language, his poems also begin to acquire a real density with his imagistic juxtaposition of image on image, particularly with his use of kennings that intensify the substantive weight of his diction.

Once again, however, we begin to see that peculiar bipolarity at the center of Gautier's poetic and his role in the evolution of modern French poetry. Marcel Voisin has argued that Gautier constitutes an essential link between French poetry of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Beginning with a stock romanticism and a markedly neoclassical diction, Gautier soon originated an individual style that would have a profound influence on subsequent Symbolist poets. But it is Baudelaire who perhaps best describes Gautier's complex admixture of a prose realism and a nascent symbolism when he immediately qualifies his discussion of "ce magnifique dictionnaire":

Si l'on réfléchit qu'à cette merveilleuse faculté Gautier unit une immense intelligence innée de la correspondance et du symbolisme universels, ce répertoire de toute métaphore, on comprendra qu'il puisse sans cesse, sans fatigue comme sans faute, définir l'attitude mystérieuse que les objets de la création tiennent devant le regard de l'homme. Il y a dans le mot, dans le verbe, quelque chose de sacré qui nous défend d'en faire un jeu de hasard.

[If one considers that Gautier adds to this marvelous faculty an immense and innate knowledge of correspondences and of universal symbolism, this catalog of every metaphor, one will come to understand that he can, without cease, without tiring and without fault, define that mysterious attitude that the objects of creation hold before the eyes of man. There is in the word, in the logos, something sacred that prohibits us from making of it a game of chance.]

Enlisting Gautier's uncanny knack for finding "le mot juste" in the Symbolists' quest for "le Verbe sacré" and their attempt to "définir l'attitude mystérieuse que Ies objets de la creation tiennent devant le regard de l'homme," Baudelaire captures here that "sorcellerie évocatoire" that makes Gautier such an important transitional figure in the history of modern French poetry.

In his Ripostes, Pound too attempts to express this "attitude mysterieuse," or, to use Pound's terms, this "Marvel and Wonder" (CEP, 58). Moreover, Pound's important transitional volume manifests this same wavering between a visionary realm and a realistic modern surface, between a quasi-symbolist "poésie pure" and a modern spoken idiom. Pound's "Alchemist: Chant for the Transmutation of Metals" (1912), for example, derives from both Gourmont's symbolist invocation in "Litanie de la rose" of the woman-rose "absente de tout bouquet" and, I would argue, Gautier's "Symphonie en blanc majeur." In "The Alchemist," Pound transforms both nature and language into a mysterious "alembic" (CEP, 226) wherein things undergo a metamorphosis and become what P. E. Tennant, referring to Gautier, describes as "a jewel-case to be plundered by the artist-connoisseur":

    Sail of Claustra, Aelis, Azalais,
    As you move among the bright trees;
    As your voices, under the larches of Paradise
    Make a clear sound,
    Sail of Claustra, Aelis, Azalais,
    Raimona, Tibors, Berangfèrë,
    'Neath the dark gleam of the sky;
    Under night, the peacock-throated,
    Bring the saffron-coloured shell,
    Bring the red gold of the maple,
    Bring the light of the birch tree in autumn
    Mirals, Cembelins, Audiarda,
    Remember this fire.

    Elain, Tireis, Alcmena
    'Mid the silver rusding of wheat,
    Agradiva, Anhes, Ardenca,
    From the plum-coloured lake, in stillness,
    From the molten dyes of the water
    Bring the burnished nature of fire;
    Briseis, Lianor, Loica,
    From the wide earth and the olive,
    From the poplars weeping their amber,
    By the bright flame of the fishing torch
    Remember this fire.

    (CEP, 225)

Pound's "Alchemist" is a "Symphonie en or majeur," and the purifying fire described therein is a mere transposition into another key of Gautier's northern landscape and vision of absolute beauty. And just as Gautier sets forth a play of correspondences between Parian marble, mica, ivory, alabaster, "l'argent mat, la laiteuse opale," Pound uses his mineral imagery (gold, copper, amber, bronze, the "pallor of silver," the "milk-white bodies of agate") to much the same effect. Both Gautier and Pound are "luminous" poets whose characteristic mineral imagery and images of reflecting light and water invariably suggest the existence of, and a pathway to, a crystalline world of the Hellenic gods.

But even in this most patently symbolic and artificial of Pound's poems, his natural descriptions nevertheless contain a Gautieresque specificity that anticipates much of his later poetry. Pound greatly extends his range of floral and mineral imagery in this particular poem, and the variegated landscape and mellifluous alchimie du verbe are always securely anchored by the extended catalog of trees ("larches of Paradise," "the red gold of the maple," "the light of the birch tree in autumn," "the poplars weeping their amber") and the vivid description of the natural setting: "the plum-coloured lake," "the molten dyes of the water," "Rain flakes of gold on the water, / Azure and flaking silver of water." Thus, despite the residue of a Gautieresque symbolism, Pound shows that he has learned his lesson well, and that he can successfully integrate Gautier's "realism" into his own verse.

For the first time, Pound manages in Ripostes to avoid the patently decorative, where colors and flowers, for example, are mere stage props for a secondhand literary vision. In lieu of Pound's early roses, willows, and "bright white drops upon a leaden sea ... Evan'scent mirrors every opal one" (CEP, 7), a precise and less interchangeable diction begins to appear in poems like "Effects of Music Upon a Company of People":

    A soul curls back,
      Their souls like petals,
      Thin, long, spiral,
    Like those of a chrysanthemum curl
    Smoke-like up and back from the
    Vavicel, the calyx,
    Pale green, pale gold, transparent,
    Green of plasma, rose-white,
    Spirate like smoke,
    Slowly, waving slowly.
    O Flower animate!
    O calyx!
    O crowd of foolish people!

      (CEP, 199)

Reminiscent of H. D.'s, the floral imagery here is much more specific than the generic roses of his early poetry, and the botanical terms anticipate Pound's later use of them in the Cantos. Moreover, Pound's use of color is so qualified that the description paradoxically becomes both extremely concrete and extremely ephemeral. Moving from the pale green of the calyx to the pale gold of the chrysanthemum (literally, golden flower), Pound establishes a vivid contrast or dissociation held together by a qualifying "paleness" that transforms the flower into an ethereally transparent thing: "Vavicel, the calyx,/Pale green, pale gold, transparent." Pound then modifies this color opposition, developing the suggested translucence in the previous line by conjoining a hard crystalline substance, a translucent variety of chalcedony, with a gaseous one: "Green of plasma, rose-white." The pale gold has now become "rose-white,/Spirate like smoke," enabling Pound to return to his initial analogy between the soul and the "chrysanthemum curl / Smoke-like up and back from the / Vavicel." Because Pound is now able to interrelate successfully his various descriptive elements and analogies, the golden color does not escape the bounds of the poem to become just another one of the blazons that plagued his early poetry.

This newfound control is even more readily apparent in " Apparuit." Although it is often singled out by critics as a last manifestation of Pound's Rossettian diction, "Apparuit" can also be seen as another instance of Gautier's influence, adopting as it does the rose-white, crimson-alabaster contrast so evident in Gautier's "'sculpture' of rhyme" (P, 186):

    Golden rose the house, in the portal 1 saw
    thee, a marvel, carven in subtle stuff, a
    portent. Life died down in the lamp and flickered,
    caught at the wonder.

    Crimson, frosty with dew, the roses bend where
    thou afar, moving in the glamorous sun,
    drinkst in life of earth, of the air, the tissue
    golden about thee.

    Green the ways, the breath of the fields is thine there,
    open lies the land, yet the steely going
    darkly hast thou dared and the dreaded aether
    parted before thee.

    Swift at courage thou in the shell of gold, casting
    a-loose the cloak of the body, earnest
    straight, then shone thine oriel and the stunned light
    faded about thee.

    Half the graven shoulder, the throat aflash with
    strands of light inwoven about it, loveliest
    of all things, frail alabaster, ah me!
    swift in departing.

    Clothed in goldish weft, delicately perfect,
    gone as wind! The cloth of the magical hands!
    Thou a slight thing, thou in access of cunning
    dar'dst to assume this?

    (P, 64–65)

Like Gautier's "À une robe rose," "Apparuit" objectifies the poet's fleeting vision in a painterly fashion through the play of color, light, and a virtual arabesque of line and movement. The opening stanza situates the vision and establishes the governing color scheme as well as the fulgurant light which permits the apparition: "Life died down in the lamp and flickered,/Caught at the wonder." Containing a curious echo of the concluding quatrain of Baudelaire's "Les Bijoux," "Apparuit" moves from the darkness of the portal to the radiant, sunlit world of the woman. The poem enacts a progressive idealization and etherealization of the woman whereby she "cast[s] a-loose the cloak of the body," loses all solidity, becoming a fragile, airy, "slight thing."


Excerpted from Ezra Pound and the Symbolist Inheritance by Scott Hamilton. Copyright © 1992 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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