Barbara Hardy on a new monument to Ezra Pound
This is a strange kind of literary history,• but perhaps it has to be. Our selfconsciousness about the problems of history, judgement and analysis is rapidly making all literary history impossible, except perhaps for very modestly limited chronicles of the individual career and its place and time. This book is neither modest nor limited (and expensive to prove it). Pound provides shape and focus, but Kenner is not making a simple structure of shifts from figure to ground and back again — he is attempting a history of modernism, with Pound as hero. This is history given concrete character and given a form which has to follow sequence but constantly interrupts and knots it. Pound's story is brilliantly interwoven with other studies of artists, and more general discussions of painting, science, philology, and archaeology. It uses an eclectic blend of anecdote, metaphor, critical analysis and visual aids. Its style can be alert and precise, but is too often either cheap or precious. It is at its best on Pound's life and poetry, and on those subjects which are closest to Pound, the use of Fenellosa, the example of William Carlos Williams, the best of Imagism, and the visual analogies, influences and memories. On such themes it is instructive, coolly taking part in that formal revolution it discusses. At its worst, when generalising about the general interest in Provencal or examining Joyce and Eliot, it looks like a self-indulgent parody. Perhaps it is most irritating in its ellipses and omissions. It has to be read as a book about Pound, and a valuable one, but to read it like this is not easy.
Some essay at literary history is necessary, in order to define Pound's assimilations and influence, and also in order to recognise his singular gifts as mythmaker, craftsman, and lyric poet. It was essential to let Pound preside over the Era, not only because he is more assimilative and probably more influential than other candidates, but because he is also more European, more American, and covers a usefully long timespan. What he presides over is less clear. This is scarcely a shy book, but it is reticent about its limits and omissions. Its sub-title allows the Pound Era to be the Age also of Eliot, Joyce, and Wyndham Lewis, but only as long as the dust-jacket lasts; and the book itself places so much valuable emphasis on William Carlos Williams and GaudierBrzeska that their names might have come outside too. Inside, we are told that the book was planned as a testimony to Pound and as "an X-ray moving picture of how our epoch was extricated from the fin de siècle.” The yoked images of science and cinema not only have the best of space and time, but reveal the double enterprise of investigation and fiction. Flesh is stripped in order to reveal and hide. Those other names on the cover turn out to be very reduced. Joyce and Eliot are handled briefly and not profoundly, and though there is a good account of Wyndham Lewis as a painter, his writing barely appears. Some of those who are not present at all, or present in no conspicuous role, are possible candidates for fuller treatment. W. B. Yeats might well seem to come out as a rival to Pound as monitor and guide on that journey from the fin de siècle, but he is disqualified because his generation died too early to make the transition. This seems evasive, since Yeats took that trip with immense will, skill and pains, and at times in company with Pound. His-name comes up quite often, but his influence is played down, and there is a significant absence of that brave modern journey from 'The Wanderings of Oisin ' to 'The Circus Animals Desertion' and 'The Man and the Echo.' Yeats's masks and myths, 'A Vision' and the mythologis ing and demythologising of history and culture seem to be both a source and a type of the modernist revolt, as Eliot himself seems to have realised.
D. H. Lawrence gets a brief mention in company with Aldington, H.D., Flint, and J. G. Fletcher, despite his contributions to the breaking of the old stable ego. Virginia Woolf, who saw and even dated the change in human character, gets a hostile adjective, ' treacly ', and a parenthetical dismissal for having exclusive social tastes. It seems odd to strain after such gnats while showing no difficulty in forgiving Pound.
The three reduced giants of the book are Henry James, James Joyce and T. S. Eliot. James scarcely counts, since his appearance is plainly metaphorical and fictitious, coming in as major character in the introductory set-piece, a street-scene in Chelsea, June 1914, where James and his niece meet Ezra and Dorothy Pound. An arch and portentous narrative blows up details of James's red " weskit " and " slow implacable voice," blends his question with Prufrock's, and offers the anecdote as an instance of the fragmentary survival of the past, a 'torn papyrus' to be digested and augmented by art. James is certainly assimilated, scarcely augmented. Kenner places and pillages James and his writing, variously. He extracts the image of a preoccupation with the present, an " effort to constate, in every nuance, the present," which may be half-justified by the slow precisions, qualifications, and circumlocutions of the late long sentences, though they could also be made to yield an image for the compulsive sense of sequence, a present moment so transparent as to reveal the originating past and the determined future.
The American Scene provides an odd image of authorlessness ' and another image of particularity in a shrunken apple on a decayed New Hampshire farm, which James bites " out of fellowship," and which looks ahead to William Carlos Williams's, "Say it, no ideas but in things." James may or may not have "brought in a generation" but he is worked hard to bring in this book.
Such image-making is pleasant and clever enough, and preferable to Kenner's other early device of reeling off dozens of simultaneous images to fix the time, its ironies and connections. We skip rapidly through all those key figures James did not meet on his American visit in 1905, Marianne Moore, Eliot, Pound, Stevens, Hemingway, Zukofsky; and through slivers of "1904 memorabilia" from cinema politics, painting, Freud, music, Joyce, Bloom and so on, bits and pieces too flightily assembled for solid chronicle or image. But Kenner also moves too fast when he moves much more slowly than this, as in the very selective and subjective reading of Joyce's story 'Eveline'. Kenner takes it as a more direct, though disguised, self-expression than it has seemed, as a story about the stories we tell ourselves. It seems quite right to see internalised fictions and narratives throughout Dubliners but this reading looks unacceptable.
Kenner sees Frank as a possible seducer, dangerously made into a fiction of a possible husband by Eveline's romantic illusion. But Eveline is not Gerty, and Joyce seems to be taking pains to show the weak and unromantic efforts of her drab imagination, powerless before the effective cultural fictions of country, family and God. What seduces Eveline is the nostalgic Italian song, the memory of the dead, the soliciting sense that things aren't as bad as all that, and the prayer at the end. The story is another image of the paralysed imagination, and Joyce only seems involved in it, as in 'Clay', insofar as it is a negative preparation for Stephen's more powerful fiction of art and renewal which, unlike Eveline, will not serve and which will escape the nets. Kenner's ' confirming ' detail of the yachting-cap worn both by Frank in the story and Joyce in the Curran photograph of 1904 looks like the critic's fiction of the fiction about fictions, since Frank is not said to wear a yachting cap and Joyce doesn't look as if he's wearing one. I have dwelt on the freely inventive and obtuse reading of this one story not only because it is all the treatment Dubliners gets, but because it seems to be related to a larger mistake about Joyce's so-called lack of inventiveness. He applies Butler's sense of Homer's imaginative limits to Joyce, and calls the naturalism of Ulysses archaeological. Both Eveline and Leopold Bloom show Joyce's capacity to invent, though it happens not to be a gift of very great interest to Kenner, especially in this book.
He is better on poetry than fiction, better on those concrete images and "radiant gists" in Pound than on the narrative and dramatic forms of Joyce and Eliot, perhaps because the modernist shift to the concrete present is achieved and seen most plainly in the lyric poem. While Kenner is alert to the personal despairs and desires in The Waste Land (and in Eliot's plays, for instance) he seems to constrict Eliot's already fairly constricted dramatic imagination. He says amusingly that Eliot told personal truths bluntly and that no one saw them, but surely isolates or exaggerates the domestic implications of "the mind under ether" which he takes as a reference to ether-sniffing, or "hope for the wrong thing" which he reads as a hope for his first wife's death. The discussion of Eliot is brilliant in patches, but rather weighed down by heavy anecdote.
Perhaps the only non-lyric writer Kenner really appreciates is Beckett, for whom there is no place in this book, though a differently structured study of the recreations of myth could trace the line through Yeats, Pound, Eliot and Joyce, to the Dante of More Pricks than Kicks and Murphy. Kenner does have two vivid glimpses of Beckett, one when he is unfortunately asked by Pound, as Joyce, 'holds court' if he is going to write a Divina Commedia or an Iliad (the answer is unrecorded); and the other when Pound is moved by Beckett's dustbin to say " C'est moi dans la poubelle." But as Beckett cannot appear, we are left with an imbalance. It is the Era not only of Pound but of poetry.
When he moves from ground to figure, the thesis is given substance, modernism is defined, Pound illuminated in life and art, success and failure. Kenner finely appreciates the poet's technique, but always as showing or directing the pressures of experience, whether in the concreteness, the outline of word and phrase, the deliberated and essential spaces that surround word and object, or the syntheses of reading, myth, memory and feeling. He does not press too heavily on Pound's "radiant gists ", remarking with great delicacy, for instance, the resonances of the ' apparition ' and the petals that shine in the dark in that haiku-like, 'In a Station of the Metro ', its ' title said to be part of the "vegetal contrast with the world of machines ", hnd where the mind is touched by the implicit presences of Hades and Persephone. Kenner's mind is touched: it is fortunate that when this happens, the critic moves lightly and certainly with a loving carefulness and a steadier, self-effacing language. The same sensitive instructiveness is present when he discusses the use of the concentrated and concrete ideogram, or the response to philology, or the art of translation. One excellent instance of such successful analysis is the tracing of sources in Canto 74 and Canto 80, where Pound joins a once-unused available Sapphic epithet, brododahtylos (rosy-fingered) with a line from Arthur Symons's 'Modern Beauty ', memories of Yeats, Beardsley's remark to Yeats that beauty was difficult, a Duccio Diana, and the poet's feeling of personality dissolved in recollections, V) make what the critic calls and shows to be " a poignant cluster." To complain about crudeness of style and judgement in those parts of the book that do not rise to this level, is to remember all that lies at the other extreme of its sensibility, and to feel perhaps more tolerant, perhaps more surprised. Pound at his best is appreciated by Kenner at his best, as man and poet, whether remembering the attempt to write 'Paradise,' or putting down the patterned sense, steady and precise, of an invading threat to sanity, or using those gists, those moments, those lucid particulars, to create solid objects like houses, food, works of art, and things in nature which define and defy Usura.