“He is both creative and procreative, and his own volume of Hymns, which was one of the last things to come from his press, combines these two libidos to such an extent that it is necessary to keep the book hidden in the piano”—so wrote Wallace Stevens of John Rodker on September 25, 1920 (“Letters” 383). Rodker’s second book of poems, Hymns, had appeared in April. Stevens appreciated Rodker’s work as a poet and as a printer, and in writing to him on October 6, Stevens called Hymns “that admirable book” (“Letters” 383). This might give us pause. What was it about the poetry of a man chiefly remembered, if at all, as the publisher of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, that Stevens liked?
Stevens was by no means unequivocal in his praise. “Rodker’s publications last winter were by all odds the most sympathetic of the year,” he enthused to Harriet Monroe on December 2. But then he qualified: “There is, of course, a cliché of the moment as well as a cliché of the past: and I rather think that Rodker merely represents the cliché of the moment” (Letters 221). Rodker’s poetry often provoked this ambivalence. Sometimes it seemed radically modern, refusing to truck with hackneyed tradition. Sometimes that modernity seemed merely superficial, representing only a passing vogue. After Richard Aldington attacked Hymns in the October issue of Poetry, Maxwell Bodenheim leapt to its defense. “Rodker is constantly groping for new methods in poetic style,” he urged, “and because he sometimes attains these roads, he must naturally arouse the anger of those who believe that poetry should stand still” (“In Defense of Rodker” 170). Even Bodenheim allows for a degree of worthy failure. In turn, Monroe appended a brief note to Bodenheim’s letter, confessing that she felt “strain, rather than achievement, in Mr. Rodker’s beautifully printed Hymns.”1
Stevens’s praise is further complicated by the fact that Hymns appeared in April, in the spring. Perhaps Stevens was referring loosely to “last winter.” Perhaps he meant some of the other works which Rodker’s Ovid Press had been busily producing: Pound’s Fourth Canto in October 1919, Wyndham Lewis’s Fifteen Drawings in January 1920, and Eliot’s [End Page 473] Ara Vos Prec in February 1920 (Cloud). Like Monroe, Stevens valued Rodker’s efforts as a printer, commenting that the Ovid Press had “printed some (possibly all) of the most distinguished things that have appeared in England during the last year” (“Letters” 383). Rodker sent the Ovid Press edition of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley to Stevens on July 28, and in a letter accompanying the book he mentions that Hymns should already have arrived (Rodker, Letter to Wallace Stevens). (In return, Stevens sent Rodker a copy of the 1920 Knopf edition of Eliot’s Poems, together with the 1919Others anthology and some of his own work.) But even if Stevens was not referring to Hymns, it is a curious coincidence that, around this time, the hymn began to figure in Stevens’s own poetry. As Geoffrey Moore once remarked, the very title of Harmonium “links the notion of harmony, of the clear light of classical Greece with a vision of Congregational hymns being sung round a wheezy organ in the parlor” (252).
Rodker’s dealings with Stevens prompt the question, what exactly were modernist poets able to do with that most reverend of genres, the hymn? And what, in turn, can this tell us about poetry’s shifting relations with organized religion, individual spirituality, and modernity? Hymns appeared two months after Ara Vos Prec, which engages with precisely the same issues, and two months before Hugh Selwyn Mauberley. The sequence seems to install Rodker in a high modernist canon, but his book is the odd man out. A secular Jew from the East End, Rodker was himself an odd man out in literary London.2 In this light, and as an answer to the call made by Andrew Crozier in his pioneering edition of Rodker, I want to locate Rodker’s work in the expanding constellation of modernist poetry.3 And...