Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams

Orientalism and Modernism: The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams

by Zhaoming Qian

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Chinese culture held a well-known fascination for modernist poets like Ezra Pound and William Carlos Williams. What is less known but is made fully clear by Zhaoming Qian is the degree to which oriental culture made these poets the modernists they became. This ambitious and illuminating study shows that Orientalism, no less than French symbolism and Italian culture, is a constitutive element of Modernism.
Consulting rare and unpublished materials, Qian traces Pound’s and Williams’s remarkable dialogues with the great Chinese poets—Qu Yuan, Li Bo, Wang Wei, and Bo Juyi—between 1913 and 1923. His investigation reveals that these exchanges contributed more than topical and thematic ideas to the Americans’ work and suggests that their progressively modernist style is directly linked to a steadily growing contact and affinity for similar Chinese styles. He demonstrates, for example, how such influences as the ethics of pictorial representation, the style of ellipsis, allusion, and juxtaposition, and the Taoist/Zen–Buddhist notion of nonbeing/being made their way into Pound’s pre-Fenollosan Chinese adaptations, Cathay, Lustra, and the Early Cantos, as well as Williams’s Sour Grapes and Spring and All. Developing a new interpretation of important work by Pound and Williams, Orientalism and Modernism fills a significant gap in accounts of American Modernism, which can be seen here for the first time in its truly multicultural character.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822397410
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 09/29/1995
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
File size: 4 MB

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Orientalism and Modernism

The Legacy of China in Pound and Williams

By Zhaoming Qian

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1995 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-9741-0



Ezra Pound was no stranger to Oriental art when he met Mary McNeil Fenollosa, the widow of the American Orientalist Ernest Fenollosa (1853–1908), in London in late September 1913. He had been introduced to Chinese and Japanese painting by the English poet and connoisseur of Far Eastern art Laurence Binyon (1869–1943), whose lectures of March 1909 on "Oriental & European Art" gave him a preliminary education in regard to the nature and significance of Oriental paintings (Holaday 29). His bride-to-be Dorothy Shakespear, quite an accomplished watercolorist herself, shared this new interest with him. As frequenters of the British Museum, the two lovers had often ventured into its Department of Prints and Drawings, where Binyon served as Assistant Keeper in charge of its growing collection of Far Eastern paintings and color prints. There Dorothy would amuse herself by drawing pictures after Chinese models (see figs. 1–4) while Ezra would walk around to examine exhibits that appealed to his imagination.

Prominently displayed in Binyon's Oriental Gallery in the Museum's White Wing (1910–12) was one of the most magnificent artworks of Oriental Antiquities, The Admonitions of the Instructress to Court Ladies, attributed to the fourth-century A.D. artist Gu Kaizhi (ca. 345-406) (see figs. 5 and 6). Ever since its acquisition in 1903, Binyon had seized every occasion to expatiate upon this monument of Chinese art. It is impossible that Pound's attention did not go to this masterpiece made up of nine visually stunning scenes, each illustrating a quotation from a Han (206 B.C.–A.D. 220) text dealing with correct court conduct. Indeed, he may have paused a little longer in front of its second scene representing the Han imperial concubine Ban Jieyu, or the Lady Ban, "refusing the Emperor's invitation to ride with him in his palanquin" for fear of distracting him from state affairs (see fig. 5). In November 1913, we are to learn in Chapter Two, he was to adapt a version of the Lady Ban's famous "Song of Regret" into his Imagist "Fan-Piece, for her Imperial Lord."

A 1909 addition to the British Museum Oriental collection, the Buddhist art from Dunhuang's "Cave of the Thousand Buddhas," is even more likely to have fascinated Pound. Thirty-odd years later, when he began his Pisan Cantos in the DTC, he would recall with vividness the dazzling image of the Bodhisattva of Compassion Guanyin ("and this day the air was made open / for Kuanon of all delights") presented by unknown artists of the Tang (618-907) in Standing Guanyin (fig. 7) and other scrolls. The sixteenth-century Japanese painter Shukei Sesson's set of The Eight Views (fig. 8), along with two Ming (1368-1644) copies of the same traditional landscape subjects ("Snowy Evening" and "Rainy Evening"), should have called forth Pound's memory of a sequence of similar scenes in a Japanese manuscript book kept in his parents' Wyncote, Pennsylvania, home. In about two decades he was to send for the yellowing book and to produce his own version of The Eight Views in his Seven Lakes Canto.

That Pound cherished a fond memory of his visits to the British Museum is evidenced by his referring to his early London years generally as the "British Museum era" in Canto 80 and by his honoring Binyon for his beauty of slowness ("BinBin 'is beauty'. / 'Slowness is beauty.'") in Canto 87. Those happened to be the years in which Binyon was vigorously engaged in promoting the art and aesthetics of the Orient. In 1908 he published Painting in the Far East, the first comprehensive study of the subject in English. (Fenollosa's Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art appeared posthumously in 1912.) In 1909 he gave his lectures on "Oriental & European Art." In 1910 he organized the 1910–12 Exhibition of Chinese and Japanese Paintings, which provided the English public with their first opportunity to examine a large collection of Oriental masterpieces covering a period of some fifteen hundred years, from the fourth century to the nineteenth century A.D. In 1911 he published The Flight of the Dragon: An Essay on the Theory and Practice of Art in China and Japan Basedon Original Sources, which was to be reprinted in August 1914, January 1922, August 1927, June 1935, December 1935, ... In November 1912, shortly after he became the head of the newly formed Oriental Sub-department, he traveled to the United States to study the Chinese and Japanese art collections in Detroit, Chicago, and New York.

Pound, who regularly lunched in Binyon's group at the Vienna Café near the British Museum ("the loss of that café [in 1914]/meant the end of a B. M. era," wrote Pound in Canto 80), would have many chances to listen to the English champion of Oriental art dilate on his favorite subjects. It was in those conversations that followed his attendance at Binyon's lectures or his inspection of the Far Eastern collection of the British Museum that Pound was forced into the culture of the Orient. By the time Pound met Mrs. Fenollosa, he had most probably studied both Binyon's pioneering work on Far Eastern painting and Fenollosa's equally influential Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art. He would have noticed that a considerable number of the illustrations in the two works were from the British Museum collection (figs. 6 and 8, for example, in the former, and fig. 9 in the latter). In a year and a half he was to review for Wyndham Lewis' Blast 2 (July 1915) Binyon's The Flight of the Dragon, and to criticize his Far Eastern art mentor's attempt "to justify Chinese intelligence by dragging it a little nearer to some Western precedent" (EPPP 2: 99).

Mary Fenollosa's purpose in seeing Pound, however, was not to hear his praise of her late husband's survey of Far Eastern pictorial art, which had seen print the previous year only because she had toiled on the "most complicated and difficult manuscript" for three years (Fenollosa v). Her aim was rather to find out if the young American poet, whose April 1913 "Contemporania" sequence she had read with delight, might be interested in taking charge of her late husband's notes and unpublished manuscripts on classical Chinese poetry and Japanese Noh drama. As a writer and editor, Mary Fenollosa knew that the undertaking demanded a poet, and in Pound she saw one who could possibly act as her husband's literary executor.

Mary Fenollosa had sought out Pound at the right moment. Spurred by T. E. Hulme's notion that "Creative effort means new images" (95) and armed with Ford Madox Hueffer's point of view that "poetry should be written at least as well as prose" (LE 373), Pound had inaugurated the Imagist movement over a year before with his friends Hilda Doolittle and Richard Aldington. Since then, he had succeeded in pushing Harriet Monroe to publish in her newly established Chicago Poetry several batches of Imagist poems and an Imagist manifesto prepared by him and signed by F. S. Flint. Once the idea of Imagism had gotten in the air, and poets like Amy Lowell had been drawn to London for Imagist education, Pound had felt the need of enriching the discipline with models that more accurately embodied his poetic ideals. It was for this purpose that he had, in the previous summer, looked to the French moderns–Corbière, Tailhade, de Gourmont, de Régnier, and Jammes–for discoveries of principles and techniques. The result of this encounter had been constructive. As René Taupin puts it, the French experimenters, "who had similar aims," had "helped Pound to make this discipline more precise" (121). To sum up his findings, Pound had written a series of articles under the general title 'The Approach to Paris." While the articles were still being published in installments in A. R. Orage's New Age, however, Pound had already switched some of his attention to the Far East. It was inevitable that his next move was toward China. As if knowing of Pound's intent and need, the shade of Fenollosa appeared on the scene at this moment with a master key to the gate of the new territory.

One must admit that Pound's knowledge of Chinese literature up to 1913 was still limited. He had read two or three "standard" translations of Chinese poetry, including Judith Gautier's Le livre de jade (1867) and Marie Marquis d'Hervey-Saint-Denys' Poésies de l'époque des Thang (1872) (Jung 5). The poetry of Li Bo, Du Fu, and Su Dongpo offered in these versions, however, had left no visible marks on his work prior to 1913. Nor had Pound, so far as I know, referred to any Chinese poets in his writings of the period. This should prove that Pound had not, up to this point, seriously studied Chinese poetry. On the other hand, he had, in his evolution toward Imagism, benefited by studying and imitating the Japanese haiku. It was probably from T. E. Hulme's Poets' Club that Pound learned the Japanese verse form. As F. S. Flint has written of the Club of 1909, "We proposed at various times to replace [the old-fashioned English poetry] by pure vers libre, by the Japanese Tanka and haikai, we all wrote dozens of the latter as an amusement ..." (71). Pound wrote his first haiku-like poem, "In a Station of the Metro," in 1911. The episode of how the poem was made has now become part of the history of Imagism. The Japanese haiku, however, was not the only Eastern poetic form Pound had pursued. By 1913 he had also examined the work of the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941). Indeed, it was through studying Tagore that he had discovered the spirit that underlies Eastern expression. In a brief essay on "Tagore's Poems," he defines this spirit as "a deeper calm" of the mind and "the fellowship between man and the gods; between man and nature." This calm, he points out, is what "we need overmuch in an age of steel and mechanics" (EPPP 1: 109).

It was after these experiments, and after these discoveries, that Pound began to pay more attention to the Chinese. At this moment, he may have recalled what Binyon had said about China's position in Oriental art. "Of all the nations of the East," Binyon emphasizes in Painting in the Far East—and presumably also in his lectures of March 1909—"the Chinese is that which through all its history has shown the strongest aesthetic instinct, the fullest and richest imagination" (5). In the same book, Binyon also points out:

The Japanese look to China as we look to Italy and Greece: for them it is the classic land, the source from which their art has drawn not only methods, materials, and principles of design, but an endless variety of theme and motive. (6)

Pound was soon to echo these remarks of Binyon's about China's importance in Eastern Culture. In "The Renaissance," first published in Poetry (February, March, and May 1914), he calls China "a new Greece" (LE 215). And in his letter to John Quinn, 10 January 1917, he observes: "China is fundamental, Japan is not. Japan is a special interest, like Provence, or 1213th century Italy (apart from Dante).... But China is solid" (L 155). By the fall of 1913, I believe, Pound must already have gotten the message: to seek the permanent and the most advanced in the Eastern literary tradition, one must take the voyage to China.

Indeed, an intimate friend of Pound's, Allen Upward (1863–1926), had already set an example to him in making the voyage. Like Pound, Upward did not know a word of Chinese. He became interested in Chinese literature at the turn of the century under the influence of Lancelot Cranmer-Byng (1872–1945), a poet who had studied Marquis d'Hervey-Saint-Denys' French version of Tang poetry and Professor Herbert A. Giles' English version of Chinese gems. In 1900, Upward and Cranmer-Byng founded a small printing firm in London, which later became the Orient Press that started the "Wisdom of the East" series (Knox 73). By the time Pound was introduced to Upward in London (in 1911), the latter had already made a name for himself as a poet and a writer of original thought. It has been said that his The New Word, a "powerful plea for idealism," "aroused England" in 1907 (Poetry September 1913). Pound was a fervent admirer of the book both for its "etymological insights into myth" (Bush, Genesis 93) and for its reference to Confucian wisdom. In the book, Upward praises "K'ung the Master" for refusing to discuss with his disciples "the appointments of Heaven" (224). "No great teacher who ever lived taught men so little about the Unknown as K'ung," he reiterates in his introduction to "Sayings of K'ung the Master" for The New Freewoman (November 1913) (189). ("And [Kung] said nothing of the 'life after death,'" echoes Pound in Canto 13.) Upwards admiration for the ancient Chinese sage may have sparked Pound's lifelong interest in Confucianism. At any rate, from Upward Pound could have learned a fair bit about Confucius. Indeed, he was probably initiated into the Confucian universe even before he had a chance to read the Confucian classics in translation.

This brings us to mid-September 1913, the eve of Pound's meeting with Mary Fenollosa. In his oddly shaped room at 10 Church Walk, Pound had opened the Poetry that had just arrived from Chicago. His eyes were fixed upon a sequence of poems—"Scented Leaves from a Chinese Jar"—by his friend Upward. The opening piece was titled 'The Bitter Purple Willows":

Meditating on the glory of illustrious lineage I lifted up my eyes and beheld the bitter purple willows growing round the tombs of the exalted Mings. (DI 51)

In the prose poem, Pound saw a state of mind set side by side with an image. The Juxtaposition of the two otherwise disconnected concepts had created for him a complex of feelings and images. This method of creation was not new to Pound and his fellow Imagists. But Upward's images had distinct Chinese colors, which Pound had witnessed in the Chinese landscape paintings of the British Museum. The "Genteels" would not accept these as fine poetry. Pound was glad that Miss Monroe had printed them in her magazine. He wrote Dorothy that day (17 September 1913): "The Chinese things in 'Poetry' are worth the price of admission" (ED 256). Six days later, he found out from Upward himself how the poems had been composed. "Upward is a very interesting chap," he reported to Miss Monroe. "He says, by the way, that the Chinese stuff is not a paraphrase, but that he made it up out of his head, using a certain amount of Chinese reminiscence" (L 59).

About two years later, Upward, in a verse letter to the editor of The Egoist (1 June 1915), offered a more luminous but not necessarily precise account of how the sequence was made:

In the year nineteen hundred a poet named Cranmer Byng brought to my attic in Whitehall Gardens a book of Chinese Gems by Professor Giles, Eastern butterflies coming into my attic there beside the Stygian Thames, And read me one of them—willows, forsaken young wife, spring.


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Table of Contents

Contents List of Illustrations Acknowledgments A Note on Transliteration Prologue: The Place of the Orient in the Modernist Movement I. Pound's Road to China 1. "Getting Orient from All Quarters": Binyon, Upward, Fenollosa 2. Via Giles: Qu Yuan, Liu Che, Lady Ban 3. China Contra Greece in Des Imagistes 4. The Pound-Fenollosa Venture: An Overview 5. Via Fenollosa: Taoism versus Vorticism in Cathay 6. Imitating Wang Wei: Toward The Cantos II. Williams' Early Encounter with the Chinese 7. "Give Me Your Face, Yang Kue Fei!" 8. In the Shadow of Bo Juyi: Sour Grapes 9. Escaping the Old Mode in Spring and All 10. In Pursuit of Minimal, Agrammatical Form Epilogue: The Beginning of a Literary Era Appendix I: A Transcript of Fenollosa's Notes for "Taking Leave of a Friend" Appendix II: A Typescript of Pound's Drafts for Eight Poems of Wang Wei Appendix III: A Descriptive List of Works on Oriental Subjects from Williams' Library Now at Fairleigh Dickinson University and Elsewhere Notes Works Cited Index

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