A Note on Ezra Pound
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[ 749 A Note on Ezra Pound1 To-Day, 4 (Sept 1918) 3-9 It is not that the critical faculty is wholly lacking to the English mind, but that our interest is seldom wholly in good literature, or in the goodness of anything as literature. To pick out “beauties” of Ezra Pound’s verse, or to expand upon his personality, would be irrelevant for different reasons. Thus when a certain Professor Phelps observes that “Rupert Brooke . . . was something more than either a man or a poet; he was and is a Personality,” he may be quite right, but is manifestly evading the duty of criticism;2 and it would be equally evasive to select fragments of Mr. Pound’s work for admiration, and to search in it for revelations of the man. The point is to come to conclusions respecting the place of his work as a whole in contemporary literature . He is well known, exciting various reactions of harmony or irritation; but there is no tradition in English verse which might have prepared for the general acceptance of his work; and England in 1910 could have been no more ready for him than in 1890; and perhaps there is even less to respond to him in 1918 than in 1910. The absence of leisure, the pressure of political interest have tended to blunt critical discrimination and obscure the truth that only what is well written is good literature. English verse in general may be said to have deteriorated. What we commonly find among contemporary poets is a mentality which has remained in the age of Wordsworth or in the age of Tennyson, with a technique which is actually inferior to that of either of these. Whatever we think of these or other figures of the past century, each of them did contribute (for what it is worth) something or other; Wordsworth and Tennyson were indeed adequate to at least some sides of the mind of their time; the more intelligent of their contemporaries could read them with serious self-respect. But while the mind of man has altered, verse has stood still; and the majority of our poets can only touch us as a Child’s Garden of Verses3 , a heavy trifling; they have nothing to say to the adult, sophisticated, civilized mind; are quite unaware of its tragedies and ecstasies. To this civilized mind Mr. Pound does make appeal; and I insist upon this because superficially he may seem so much the archaeologist. We may assert with confidence that a poet ought to be highly educated, and that the core of his education ought 1918: Journalism 750 ] to be education in poetry. A large part of any poet’s “inspiration” must come from reading and from his knowledge of history. I mean history widely taken; any cultivation of the historical sense, of perception of our position relative to the past, and in particular of the poet’s relation to poets of the past. Mr. Pound’s extensive knowledge of literature is one important thing, his particular passion for and minute knowledge of Provençal is another. What has mattered is not simply that he has by insight and labour got the spirit of Provençal, or of Chinese, or of Anglo-Saxon, as the case may be; but that he has made masterpieces, some of translation, some of re-creation , by his perception of the relation of these periods and languages to the present, of what they have that we want; and this perception of relation involves an organized view of the whole course of European poetry from Homer. He has also–I shall come to that presently–a particular gift of his own of calling the past to life; but his erudition in general is his attainment of the education which every writer of verse ought to strive for. The untutored poet, pure fount of inspiration, may produce a work of merit; he is more likely to waste his forces, to do again badly what has already been done well. And Mr. Pound is in this way always “modern”: he never repeats. My point is to be this: that Pound’s erudition, his interest in the past, and his interest in the present are one; and that the variety of his work has a unity behind it. His poems of mœurs contemporaines belong to the same total opus as his Provençal canzone.4 Technically,thereisthis,separately:thatMr.Pound’sstudiesinthehistory of metric have enabled him to...