Turns out Walt Whitman had a greater influence on fin de siècle American poetics than I had supposed. It was his plain diction that led Pound to largely forgo archaicisms,[i] and led to the plainspeak of the Cantos, insofar as that exists. Before going into that, however, let me allow John Tytell to place Pound in the context of this time:
As a young man Pound frequently referred to himself as a genius and at this time saw himself as connected to a great chain of poets whose lessons he could master and who could speak through him in his poems. Much of Pound’s most successful early work was imitative — he had the best ear among poets of his generation and could mimic to perfection. Of course he had his own taste and his struggle during the early years of his apprenticeship, from 1908 through 1912, was to forge his own voice.[ii]
This period of apprenticeship, as Tytell dates it, stretches from Pound’s publication of A Lume Spento and A Quinzaine for this Yule in 1908 through The Sonnets and Ballate of Guido Cavalcanti and Ripostes in 1912, or about 245 pages of verse.[iii] We saw the young Pound expressing the feelings Tytell reports in the poem “Histrion” in my December post. I bring it back here for its value in illustrating Pound’s self-absorption:
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 am I 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
So cease we from all being for the time,
And these, the Masters of the Soul, live on.
So that’s Pound writing in 1908 in Venice. He published the poem in A Quinzaine for this Yule in 1908. It was published at about the same time in the Evening Standard, according to Tytell. Later, about in the middle of this apprenticeship, Pound wrote an essay “posted June 15 2010”[iv] and published it under the title “What I Feel About Walt Whitman.” In it he confirms Tytell’s evaluation of him as he evaluates Whitman:
*****From this side of the Atlantic I am for the first time able to read Whitman, and from the vantage of my education and—if it be permitted a man of my scant years—my world citizenship: I see him America’s poet. The only Poet before the artists of the Carmen-Hovey period, or better, the only one of the conventionally recognised ‘American Poets’ who is worth reading.
*****He is America. His crudity is an exceeding great stench, but it is America. He is the hollow place in the rock that echoes with his time. He does ‘chant the crucial stage’ and he is the ‘voice triumphant.’ He is disgusting. He is an exceedingly nauseating pill, but he accomplished his mission.
*****Entirely free from the renaissance humanist ideal of the complete man or from the Greek idealism, he is content to be what he is, and he is his time and his people. He is a genius because he has vision of what he is and of his function. He knows that he is a beginning and not a classically finished work.
*****I honour him for he prophesied me while I can only recognise him as a forebear of whom I ought to be proud.[v]
Pound was writing in London, where Whitman was more honored as a poet than he was in his own country. He was reading, as he says, Whitman for the first time, and reacting as a bit of a dandy. Later in the essay he says:
I am (in common with every educated man) an heir of the ages and I demand my birth-right. Yet if Whitman represented his time in language acceptable to one accustomed to my standard of intellectual-artistic living he would belie his time and nation. And yet I am but one of his “ages and ages’ encrustations” or to be exact an encrustation of the next age. The vital part of my message, taken from the sap and fibre of America, is the same as his.[vi]
As Tytell points out, Pound later used that same “sap and fibre” imagery in his poem “A Pact,” in which he imagines himself making peace with Whitman:
I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman —
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root —
Let there be commerce between us.[vii]
One can’t help but notice the difference between “Histrion” and “A pact” in diction, tone, outlook. Pound is not backing off from his claims of being a genius, but he has changed his voice. This is the voice that will prevail. One also can’t help but notice that Pound clings, in his essay, to notions of gentility of his family. Whitman was from a working-class family. His formal schooling stopped when he was eleven, and he sought work to help his family out. I don’t know what Pound knew of that, but he could sense the difference in class between the two of them — so much so that even his apology, in “A Pact,” seems a little condescending.
One of my professors pointed that out when I was in grad school. By then, in 1975, it was clear which poet was more revered by the American people, and which barely known to them.
And, quite by chance, it turns out that Emily Dickinson had a greater influence on fin de siècle American poetics than I had supposed. It was her influence on Amy Lowell that led Lowell to hunt down Ezra Pound, in search of what was new and what she could build on.[viii] This is how it went: in October, 1902, Lowell went to the theater to watch Eleonora Duse act in two new plays, written for her by Gabriele d’Annunzio. They spoke to Lowell, and when she got home she sat up all night writing poems, trying to express her feelings. “After eight years of effort, a sonnet called ‘A Fixed Idea’ was taken by The Atlantic.”[ix] Here is that sonnet:
What torture lurks within a single thought
When grown too constant, and however kind,
However welcome still, the weary mind
Aches with its presence. Dull remembrance taught
Remembers on unceasingly; unsought
The old delight is with us but to find
That all recurring joy is pain refined,
Become a habit, and we struggle, caught.
You lie upon my heart as on a nest,
Folded in peace, for you can never know
How crushed I am with having you at rest
Heavy upon my life. I love you so
You bind my freedom from its rightful quest.
In mercy lift your drooping wings and go.
Here, Lowell has based her sonnet on the concept of idée fixe, a medical term from a century earlier, and given it a personal and romantic coloration. The concept is familiar enough that I will not bother you with an explanation here.[x] The poem does that well. Moore notes that, two years later, “in 1912, Lowell’s first collection was accepted by Houghton Mifflin. She was thirty-eight.”[xi] That was at the latter end of Pound’s apprenticeship, and at the beginning of Lowell’s relationship with Ada Dwyer Russell, “a veteran American character actress appearing in Boston…. A divorcée from Salt Lake City where her father had run Dwyer’s, for decades the only literary bookstore in the Far West, Ada was a voracious reader…. after supper at Sevenels [Amy’s home], Amy read Ada the entire text of A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass,” the collection, on which she was then correcting proofs.[xii]
Moore considers this next poem a love poem for Ada. Note how it differs in diction, in tone, in its flexible verse, from “A Fixed Idea”:
When I go away from you
The world beats dead
Like a slackened drum.
I call out for you against the jutted stars
And shout into the ridges of the wind.
Streets coming fast,
One after the other,
Wedge you away from me,
And the lamps of the city prick my eyes
So that I can no longer see your face.
Why should I leave you,
To wound myself upon the sharp edges of the night?
This poem is from Sword Blades and Poppy Seeds, published in 1914. Moore considers it a “love lyric to Mrs. Russell,” who “retired from the stage to live at Sevenels” about 1914.[xiii] But it wasn’t just love that made the difference.
Moore attributes the change to three poets who influenced Lowell after A Dome of Many-Coloured Glass in 1912. “In 1913, in Poetry, Lowell read the poems of H.D…. Barely a year later, reading the first unbowdlerized Emily Dickinson, Lowell was overwhelmed…. A final crucial influence would come in 1915 when she read Pound’s Cathay and discovered classical Chinese poetry.”[xiv]
It was the first of those influences that led to her visit to London in 1913, as outlined in my last post, where she met Pound and Doolittle and Aldington and Lawrence, and hi-jacked Imagism, as Pound saw it. This is how Lowell saw it:
To Ezra Pound
with much friendship and admiration and some differences of opinion
The Poet took his walking-stick
Of fine and polished ebony.
Set in the close-grained wood
Were quaint devices;
Patterns in ambers,
And in the clouded green of jades.
The top was smooth, yellow ivory,
And a tassel of tarnished gold
Hung by a faded cord from a hole
Pierced in the hard wood,
Circled with silver.
For years the Poet had wrought upon this cane.
His wealth had gone to enrich it,
His experiences to pattern it,
His labour to fashion and burnish it.
To him it was perfect,
A work of art and a weapon,
A delight and a defence.
The Poet took his walking-stick
And walked abroad.
Peace be with you, Brother.
The Poet came to a meadow.
Sifted through the grass were daisies,
Open-mouthed, wondering, they gazed at the sun.
The Poet struck them with his cane.
The little heads flew off, and they lay
Dying, open-mouthed and wondering,
On the hard ground.
“They are useless. They are not roses,” said the Poet.
Peace be with you, Brother. Go your ways.
The Poet came to a stream.
Purple and blue flags waded in the water;
In among them hopped the speckled frogs;
The wind slid through them, rustling.
The Poet lifted his cane,
And the iris heads fell into the water.
They floated away, torn and drowning.
“Wretched flowers,” said the Poet,
“They are not roses.”
Peace be with you, Brother. It is your affair.
The Poet came to a garden.
Dahlias ripened against a wall,
Gillyflowers stood up bravely for all their short stature,
And a trumpet-vine covered an arbour
With the red and gold of its blossoms.
Red and gold like the brass notes of trumpets.
The Poet knocked off the stiff heads of the dahlias,
And his cane lopped the gillyflowers at the ground.
Then he severed the trumpet-blossoms from their stems.
Red and gold they lay scattered,
Red and gold, as on a battle field;
Red and gold, prone and dying.
“They were not roses,” said the Poet.
Peace be with you, Brother.
But behind you is destruction, and waste places.
The Poet came home at evening,
And in the candle-light
He wiped and polished his cane.
The orange candle flame leaped in the yellow ambers,
And made the jades undulate like green pools.
It played along the bright ebony,
And glowed in the top of cream-coloured ivory.
But these things were dead,
Only the candle-light made them seem to move.
“It is a pity there were no roses,” said the Poet.
Peace be with you, Brother. You have chosen your part.
This poem was published in Sword Blades and Poppy Seed, in 1914, which underscores how quickly the break came. There is in this poem some of the tone that Pound brought to his essay on Whitman, but with the deeper immersion in the world of flowers that Dickinson may have encouraged. Or not. Lowell had proven herself self-directed by 1914. And in this poem she captures in Pound a monomania, an idée fixe, a malicious obsession that could be characterized by a line from Bob Dylan: “I’ve got a head full of ideas that are driving me insane!”
But hold on, I hear you say: isn’t Lowell ignoring Hanlon’s razor, which is attributed at times to William James, whom she studied: Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity?
[i] Much of my generalizing about Pound in this post comes from my reading in Ezra Pound : the solitary volcano / John Tytell. — New York : Anchor ; Doubleday, 1987. Tytell is, however, not responsible for my conclusions nor my opinions, so I will try to plainly indicate those.
[ii] Ibid., p. 41.
[iii] As paginated in Poems and translations / Ezra Pound. — S.l. : Library of America, c2003. “Richard Sieburth selected the contents and wrote the chronology and notes for this volume” — acknowledgment (and he deserves full credit for undertaking such an Augean labor).
[iv] The date is from the website poets.org, and that site does not cite any prior publication data, but clearly it was not “posted” in 1910 the way I am posting this post.
[v] https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/text/what-i-feel-about-walt-whitman, accessed 25 March 2017.
[vii] Poems and translations, p. 269.
[viii] Much of my generalizing about Lowell in this post comes from reading Honor Moore’s introduction to Selected poems / Amy Lowell ; Honor Moore, editor. — S. l. : Library of America, c2004 (American poets project ; 12) . Moore is, however, not responsible for my conclusions nor my opinions, so I will try to plainly indicate those.
[ix] Ibid., p. xxviii.
[x] But, if you are curious, it is sketched in Wikipedia, at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idée_fixe_(psychology).
[xi] Op. cit. The volume was published in September, according to p. xxix.
[xii] Ibid., pp. xxix-xxx.
[xiii] Ibid., pp. xxx.
[xiv] Ibid., pp. xxviii-xxix.