Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past

Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past

by James Longenbach


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ISBN-13: 9780691609720
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #499
Pages: 300
Sales rank: 483,841
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

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Modernist Poetics of History

Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past

By James Longenbach


Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-06707-0


Pater and Yeats: The Dicta of the Great Critics

In 1908, just before he sailed for Europe, Pound spent a few weeks at Wabash College in Indiana, earning his keep as an instructor of Romance languages. It was a stifling experience, and it probably catalyzed his decision to travel abroad. For Pound, America in the early 1900s was much like the America that Henry James described so vividly in his book on Hawthorne. James made a list of everything Hawthorne's America lacked:

No state, in the European sense of the word, and indeed barely a specific national name. No sovereign, no court, no personal loyalty, no aristocracy, no church, no clergy, no army, no diplomatic service, no country gentlemen, no palaces, no castles, nor manors, nor old country-houses, nor parsonages, nor thatched cottages, nor ivied ruins; no cathedrals, nor abbeys, nor little Norman churches; no great Universities nor public schools — no Oxford, nor Eton, nor Harrow; no literature, no novels, no museums, no pictures, no political society, no sporting class — no Epsom or Ascot!

In short, no tradition, no history, no past. While at Wabash College Pound wrote the poem "In Durance" in which he confessed,

    I am homesick after mine own kind
    And ordinary people touch me not.
    Yea, I am homesick
    After mine own kind that know, and feel
    And have some breath for beauty and the arts. (CEP, 86)

Pound needed to travel abroad to discover his own kind; in Europe he would "meet kindred e'en as I am, / Flesh-shrouded bearing the secret" (CEP, 86). Pound sought the living who bore the secrets of the dead.

When he arrived in London, he found the secret in the person of W. B. Yeats. Pound had long admired and imitated Yeats's poetry and prose, but the very presence of the older poet took on a new significance. "The personal acquaintance with older artists who have been discoverers is a thing beyond all price" Pound wrote in Patria Mia (1913; SP, 139). But his personal acquaintance with Yeats did more than provide intimate contact with the person he considered the "great living poet" (L, 7–8); Yeats himself, the living man, became Pound's personal Tiresias, his connection to the past. In "How I Began" (1913) Pound looked back over his first five years in England:

Besides knowing living artists I have come in touch with the tradition of the dead. ... I have relished this or that about "old Browning, or Shelley sliding down his front banisters "with almost incredible rapidity."

There is more, however, in this sort of Apostolic Succession than a ludicrous anecdote, for people whose minds have been enriched by contact with men of genius retain the effects of it.

I have enjoyed meeting Victorians and Pre-Raphaelites and men of the nineties through their friends. I have seen Keats' proof sheets. I have had personal tradition of his time second-hand. This, perhaps, means little to a Londoner, but it is good fun if you have grown up regarding such things as about as distant as Ghengis Khan or the days of Lope de Vega.

In the wilds of Indiana — and even in the graduate seminars in Romance philology at the University of Pennsylvania — the tradition Pound craved seemed irretrievable. In England, he recovered the dead by meeting the living who retained the past in their very selves. Yeats became Pound's guide through a poetic underworld inhabited by Rhymers, Pre-Raphaelites, Victorians, Shelley, and Keats.

Pound's conception of the mechanism of tradition as an "Apostolic Succession" is itself quite Yeatsian in its dependence upon the lasting effects of the spiritual presence of the dead. In "Histrion" (1908), one of the earliest poems he published, Pound explained his ability to possess and be possessed by long-dead spirits. This is a process long practiced, but never before explained in prose or rhyme, says Pound:

    No man hath dared to write this thing as yet,
    And yet I know, how that the souls of all men great
    At times pass through us,
    And we are melted into them, and are not
    Save reflexions of their souls.
    Thus I am Dante for a space and am
    One François Villon, ballad-lord and thief
    Or am such holy ones I may not write,
    Lest blasphemy be writ against my name;
    This for an instant and the flame is gone.

    'Tis as in midmost us there glows a sphere
    Translucent, molten gold, that is the "I"
    And into this some form projects itself:
    Christus, or John, or eke the Florentine;
    And as the clear space is not if a form's
    Imposed thereon,
    So cease we from all being for the time,
    And these, the Masters of the Soul, live on. (CEP, 71)

Sanford Schwartz has pointed out that these lines celebrate a "principle of psychic unity" that also lies at the center of Dilthey's historicism: "Dilthey speaks of 'the intimate kinship of all human psychic life' that makes it possible to communicate across the centuries. Pound says the same thing in the more rarified medium he adopted from Neoplatonic philosophy. ... Despite the differences that separate one soul (or one age) from another, we possess the capacity to identify with any expression of life. ... It is this kinship between ourselves and our predecessors that allows us to transcend our own temporal horizon and participate in an enduring cultural tradition."

Like Dilthey, Pound based his historicism on the belief in a trans-historical spirit that unites all individuals. "The soul of each man," he wrote in I Gather the Limbs of Osiris, "is compounded of all the elements of the cosmos of souls" (SP, 28). Yet Pound did find his vocabulary for this general consciousness in Neoplatonic philosophy — both ancient and modern. Soon after his arrival in London Pound began to think strenuously about the nature of historical inquiry, and he formulated a rigorous historicism in his prose works, The Spirit of Romance (1910) and I Gather the Limbs of Osiris (1911–1912). The Spirit of Romance was based on a course of lectures Pound gave early in 1909 at the Regent Street Polytechnic on "The Development of Literature in Southern Europe." In his introductory lecture on the "search for the essential qualities of literature," he reviewed the "Dicta of the great critics: — Plato, Aristotle, Longinus, Dante, Coleridge, De Quincey, Pater and Yeats." This list reads like an abbreviated but standard syllabus for a course in the history of criticism until it reaches the nineteenth century; after Coleridge we would expect Arnold's name to appear. But Pound had no sympathy for Arnold's voice of social and academic legitimacy. Rebelling against his training in philology at the University of Pennsylvania, Pound wanted to forge a criticism that would not divorce poetry — especially the poetry of the past — from the intensity of lived experience. If "Arnold considered poetry as a part of literature," Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance, "then his definition of literature as 'criticism of life' is the one notable blasphemy that was born of his mind's frigidity" (SR, 222).

Pound countered Arnold's frigidity with the fire of Walter Pater, the critic who urged that "to burn always with [a] hard, gem-like flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life." When Pound wrote in The Spirit of Romance that "poetry is about as much a 'criticism of life' as a red-hot iron is the criticism of the fire" (SR, 222), he invoked Pater's flame to undermine Arnold's sober dictum. Pound's reasons for placing Pater and Yeats at the end of his list of great critics are clear: given his distaste for Arnold's air of academic legitimacy, Pound naturally turned to the aesthetes, critics who spoke the secret language of the poet instead of the public voice of the sage. To understand the methods of historical interpretation that Pound outlined in The Spirit of Romance and I Gather the Limbs of Osiris, we must begin with the criticism of Pater and Yeats. In their Neoplatonic doctrines of a general consciousness, Pound discovered the inspiration for his own.

Although Pater is known best for his description of the "narrow chamber of the individual mind" in the "Conclusion" to The Renaissance, he was, as Peter Dale asserts in The Victorian Critic and the Idea of History, "a good deal more concerned with tracing the historical development of speculative culture or the general consciousness of mankind." Like most of Pater's disciples, we still tend to associate him with the fragile solipsism of the "Conclusion" to The Renaissance rather than the copious retraction and reformulation of that doctrine that he undertook in Marius the Epicurean (1885) and Plato and Platonism (1893). Part of the reason for the dominance of the early Pater is that his most famous disciples, Arthur Symons, George Moore, and (in some moods) Oscar Wilde, trumpeted the solipsistic doctrine of the "Conclusion" long after Pater devoted himself to other concerns. In "Divergent Disciples of Walter Pater" John Pick points out that Lionel Johnson was "one of the very few disciples who grew with Pater ... [and] passed on to higher doctrines in Marius and Plato and Platonism." Along with Johnson, Yeats and Pound may be included among those disciples who were attracted not so much to the Pater who asserted that every individual is "a solitary prisoner in its own dream of a world," but the Pater who declared that man is "not ... simple and isolated; for the mind of the race, the character of the age, sway him this way or that through the medium of language and current ideas" with "remote laws of inheritance, the vibration of long-past acts reaching him in the midst of the new order of things in which he lives." It is this historicism, this faith in a general consciousness that unites all individuals, past and present, that Pater bequeathed to his modernist disciples.

The historical method of Pater's Renaissance and Plato and Platonism was received negatively during the nineteenth century; these works were criticized for their lack of scientific "objectivity." Pater realized long before most of his English contemporaries, however, that history was not objective or scientific in nature. Like Dilthey, he knew that the individual interpreter does not stand removed from the past but is in fact connected to the past by what Pater called a "general consciousness." He understands the past by focusing on what he holds in common with it and by injecting it with the vitality of his life in the present. In Plato and Platonism Pater's "general consciousness" functions in much the same way as Dilthey's "spirit" or "life":

See! we might say, there is a general consciousness, a permanent common sense, independent indeed of each one of us, but with which we are, each one of us, in communication. It is in that, those common or general ideas really reside. And we might add just here ... that those abstract or common notions come to the individual mind through language, through common or general names, Animal, Justice, Equality, into which one's individual experience, little by little, drop by drop, conveys their full meaning or content; and, by the instrumentality of such terms and notions, thus locating the particular in the general, mediating between general and particular, between our individual experience and the common experience of our kind, we come to understand each other, and to assist each other's thoughts, as in a common mental atmosphere, an "intellectual world," as Plato calls it.

Like Dilthey, Pater emphasizes the concrete "lived" nature of this general consciousness; it is not so much an abstract spirit as a matrix established by the continuities of language and culture. Pater uses this general consciousness as the basis for what he calls an "imaginative method" of historical reconstruction: as in Dilthey's hermeneutics, Pater contends that we understand the past through the elements it shares in common with the present, "through a multitude of stray hints in art and poetry and religious custom, through modern speculation on the tendencies of early thought, through traits and touches in our own actual states of mind, which may seem sympathetic with those tendencies."

For both Pater and Dilthey history is finally the equivalent of personal experience because the present itself is woven from the remnants of the entire past. The existential historian, as I have said, believes that "all history is contemporary history." This belief in the presence of the past — and the more demanding belief that it is only as a living presence that we know the past — lies at the core of Pater's entire aesthetic. Here is his most famous piece of writing, his prose poem on La Gioconda, as Yeats presented it as the first modern poem in his edition of The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936):

    She is older than the rocks among which she sits;
    Like the Vampire,
    She has been dead many times,
    And learned the secrets of the grave;
    And has been a diver in deep seas,
    And keeps their fallen day about her;
    And trafficked for strange webs with Eastern merchants;
    And, as Leda,
    Was the mother of Helen of Troy,
    And, as St Anne,
    Was the mother of Mary;
    And all this has been to her but as the sound of lyres and flutes,
    And lives
    Only in the delicacy
    With which it has moulded the changing lineaments,
    And tinged the eyelids and the hands.

La Gioconda may stand as both the "symbol of the modern idea" and the "embodiment of the old fancy," as Pater wrote in The Renaissance, because for Pater, what is modern is nothing more than the sum of everything that has preceded it. Wilde seconded this sense of the modern in "The Critic as Artist" when he wrote that we must live "not merely our own lives, but the collective life of the race, and so to make ourselves absolutely modern, in the true meaning of the word modernity." Like the portrait of the Mona Lisa, the present is layered with the remnants of the entire past, the contents of the general consciousness. In Plato and Platonism Pater described the principle that lies behind his description of Leonardo's lady:

The thoughts of Plato, like the language he has to use ... are covered with the traces of previous labour and have had their earlier proprietors. If at times we become aware in reading him of certain anticipations of modern knowledge, we are also quite obviously among the relics of an older, a poetic or half-visionary world. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that in Plato, in spite of his wonderful savour of literary freshness, there is nothing absolutely new: or rather, as in many other very original products of human genius, the seemingly new is old also, a palimpsest, a tapestry of which the actual threads have served before.

For Pater, every object in the present, anything we experience in the present, is structured as a palimpsest — the dialogues of Plato, La Gioconda, or even the words we use to describe them. By living in the present, we live historically; by observing the world around us, we come to know the past, and we come to know that the present and the past cannot be separated.


Excerpted from Modernist Poetics of History by James Longenbach. Copyright © 1987 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Contents, pg. vii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Acknowledgments, pg. xiii
  • Abbreviations, pg. xvii
  • Introduction. Modernism and Historicism, pg. 1
  • Chapter One. Pater and Yeats: The Dicta of the Great Critics, pg. 29
  • Chapter Two. I Gather the Limbs of Osiris, pg. 45
  • Chapter Three. Canzoni: Toward a Poem Including History, pg. 62
  • Chapter Four. The Perigord Phantastikon, pg. 79
  • Chapter Five. Three Cantos and the War Against Philology, pg. 96
  • Chapter Six. Truth and Calliope, pg. 131
  • Chapter Seven. Eeldrop and Appleplex: Eliot and Pound, pg. 152
  • Chapter Eight. F. H. Bradley and the "System" of History, pg. 164
  • Chapter Nine. The Contrived Corridors of Poems 1920, pg. 177
  • Chapter Ten. The Waste Land: Beyond the Frontier, pg. 200
  • Notes, pg. 239
  • Index, pg. 267

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