Cleverness is, indeed, the pitfall of the New Poetry. There is no question about the ingenuity with which its varying moods are exploited, its elaborate symbolism evolved, and its sudden, disconcerting effects exploded upon the imagination. Swift, brilliant images break into the field of vision, scatter like rockets, and leave a trail of flying fire behind. But the general impression is momentary; there are moods and emotions, but no steady current of ideas behind them. Further, in their determination to surprise and even to puzzle at all costs, these young poets are continually forgetting that the first essence of poetry is beauty; and that, however much you may have observed the world around you, it is impossible to translate your observation into poetry, without the intervention of the spirit of beauty, controlling the vision, and reanimating the idea.The temptations of cleverness may be insistent, but its risks are equally great: how great indeed will, perhaps, be best indicated by the example of the "Catholic Anthology," which apparently represents the very newest of all the new poetic movements of the day. This strange little volume bears upon its cover a geometrical device, suggesting that the material within holds the same relation to the art of poetry as the work of the Cubist school holds to the art of painting and design. The product of the volume is mainly American in origin, only one or two of the contributors being of indisputably English birth. But it appears here under the auspices of a house associated with some of the best poetry of the younger generation, and is prefaced by a short lyric by Mr W.B. Yeats, in which that honoured representative of a very different school of inspiration makes bitter fun of scholars and critics, who
Edit and annotate the linesThe reader will not have penetrated far beyond this warning notice before he finds himself in the very stronghold of literary rebellion, if not of anarchy. Mr Orrick Johns may be allowed to speak for his colleagues, as well as for himself:
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love's despair
To flatter beauty's ignorant ear.
This is the song of youth,And Mr Ezra Pound takes up the parable in turn, in the same wooden prose, cut into battens:
This is the cause of myself;
I knew my father well and he was a fool,
Therefore will I have my own foot in the path before I take a step;
I will go only into new lands,
And I will walk on no plank-walks.
The horses of my family are wind-broken,
And the dogs are old,
And the guns rust;
I will make me a new bow from an ash-tree,
And cut up the homestead into arrows.
Come, my songs, let us express our baser passions.It is not for his audience to contradict the poet, who for once may be allowed to pronounce his own literary epitaph. But this, it is to be noted, is the 'poetry' that was to say nothing that might not be said 'actually in life - under emotion,' the sort of emotion that settles down into the banality of a premature decrepitude:
Let us express our envy for the man with a steady job and no worry about the future.
You are very idle, my songs,
I fear you will come to a bad end.
You stand about the streets. You loiter at the corners and bus-stops,
You do next to nothing at all.
You do not even express our inner nobility,
You will come to a very bad end.
And I? I have gone half cracked.
I grow old .... grow oldHere, surely, is the reduction to absurdity of that school of literary license which, beginning with the declaration
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think that they will sing to me.
I knew my father well and he was a fool,naturally proceeds to the convenient assumption that everything which seemed wise and true to the father must inevitably be false and foolish to the son. Yet if the fruits of emancipation are to be recognised in the unmetrical, incoherent banalities of these literary 'Cubists,' the state of Poetry is indeed threatened with anarchy which will end in something worse even than 'red ruin and the breaking up of laws.' From such a catastrophe the humour, commonsense, and artistic judgment of the best of the new 'Georgians' will assuredly save their generation; nevertheless, a hint of warning may not be altogether out of place. It was a classic custom in the family hall, when the feast was at its height, to display a drunken slave among the sons of the household, to the end that they, being ashamed at the ignominious folly of his gesticulations, might determine never to be tempted into such a pitiable condition themselves. The custom had its advantages; for the wisdom of the younger generation was found to be fostered more surely by a single example than by a world of homily and precept.
EZRA POUND, "DRUNKEN HELOTS AND MR. ELIOT," EGOIST. June 1917, vol. iv, 72-4.
Genius has I know not what peculiar property, its manifestations are various, but however diverse and dissimilar they may be, they have at least one property in common. It makes no difference in what art, in what mode, whether the most conservative, or the most ribbald-revolutionary, or the most diffident; if in any land, or upon any floating deck over the ocean, or upon some newly contrapted craft in the nether, genius manifests itself, at once some elderly gentleman has a flux of bile from his liver; at once from the throne or the easy Cowperian sofa, or from the gutter, or from the oeconomical press room there bursts a torrent of elderly words, splenetic, irrelevant, they form themselves instinctively into large phrases denouncing the inordinate product.This peculiar kind of rabbia might almost be taken as the test of a work of art, mere talent seems incapable of exciting it. 'You can't fool me, sir, you're a scoundrel,' bawls the testy old gentleman.Fortunately the days when 'that very fiery particle' could be crushed out by the Quarterly are over, but it interests me, as an archaeologist, to note that the firm which no longer produces Byron, but rather memoirs, letters of the late Queen, etc., is still running a review, and that this review is still where it was in 1812, or whatever the year was; and that, not having an uneducated Keats to condemn, a certain Mr. Waugh is scolding about Mr. Eliot.All I can find out, by asking questions concerning Mr. Waugh, is that he is 'a very old chap,' 'a reviewer.' From internal evidence we deduce that he is, like the rest of his generation of English gens-de-lettres, ignorant of Laforgue; of De Regnier's Odelettes; of his French contemporaries generally, of De Gourmont's Litanies, of Tristan Corbiere, Laurent Tailhade. This is by no means surprising. We are used to it from his 'b'ilin'.'However, he outdoes himself, he calls Mr. Eliot a 'drunken helot.' So called they Anacreon in the days of his predecessors, but from the context in the Quarterly article I judge that Mr. Waugh does not intend the phrase as a compliment, he is trying to be abusive, and moreover, he in his limited way has succeeded.Let us sample the works of the last 'Drunken Helot.' I shall call my next anthology 'Drunken Helots' if I can find a dozen poems written half so well as the following:
[Quotes "Conversation Galante"]Our helot has a marvellous neatness. There is a comparable finesse in Laforgue's "Votre ame est affaire d'oculiste," but hardly in English verse.Let us reconsider this drunkenness:
[Quotes "La Figlia Che Piange"]And since when have helots taken to reading Dante and Marlowe? Since when have helots made a new music, a new refinement, a new method of turning old phrases into new by their aptness? However the Quarterly, the century old, the venerable, the praeclarus, the voice of Gehova and Co., Sinai and 51A Albemarle Street, London, W. 1, has pronounced this author a helot. They are all for an aristocracy made up of, possibly, Tennyson, Southey and Wordsworth, the flunkey, the dull and the duller. Let us sup with the helots. Or perhaps the good Waugh is a wag, perhaps he hears with the haspirate and wishes to pun on Mr. Heliot's name: a bright bit of syzygy.I confess his type of mind puzzles me, there is no telling what he is up to.I do not wish to misjudge him, this theory may be the correct one. You never can tell when old gentlemen grow facetious. He does not mention Mr. Eliot's name; he merely takes his lines and abuses them. The artful dodger, he didn't (sotto voce 'he didn't want "people" to know that Mr. Eliot was a poet').The poem he chooses for malediction is the title poem, "Prufrock." It is too long to quote entire.
[Quotes "Prufrock" 'For I have known them' to 'leaning out of windows'.]Let us leave the silly old Waugh. Mr. Eliot has made an advance on Browning. He has also made his dramatic personae contemporary and convincing. He has been an individual in his poems. I have read the contents of this book over and over, and with continued joy in the freshness, the humanity, the deep quiet culture. 'I have tried to write of a few things that really have moved me' is so far as I know, the sum of Mr. Eliot's 'poetic theory.' His practice has been a distinctive cadence, a personal modus of arrangement, remote origins in Elizabethan English and in the modern French masters, neither origin being sufficiently apparent to affect the personal quality. It is writing without presence. Mr. Eliot at once takes rank with the five or six living poets whose English one can read with enjoyment.
It is perhaps 'unenglish' to praise a poet whom one can read with
enjoyment. Carlyle's generation wanted 'improving' literature, Smile's
'Self-Help' and the rest of it. Mr. Waugh dates back to that generation,
the virus is in his blood, he can't help it. The exactitude of the younger
generation gets on his nerves, and so on and so on. He will 'fall into
line in time' like the rest of the bread-and-butter reviewers. Intelligent
people will read "J. Alfred Prufrock"; they will wait with some eagerness
for Mr. Eliot's further inspirations. It is 7.30 p.m. I have had nothing
alcoholic to-day, nor yet yesterday. I said the same sort of thing about
James Joyce's prose over two years ago. I am now basking in the echoes.
Only a half-caste rag for the propagation of garden suburbs, and a local
gazette in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A., are left whining in opposition.
(I pay my compliments to Ernest Rhys, that he associates with a certain Sarolea, writer of prefaces to cheap editions and editor of Everyman. They had better look after their office boys. I like Ernest Rhys personally, I am sorry to think of him in such slums, but it is time that he apologized for the antics of that paper with which he is, at least in the minds of some, still associated. His alternative is to write a disclaimer. Mr. Dent, the publisher, would also have known better had the passage been submitted to his judgment.)However, let us leave these bickerings, this stench of the printing-press, weekly and quarterly, let us return to the gardens of the Muses,
Till human voices wake us and we drown,as Eliot has written in conclusion to the poem which the 'Quarterly' calls the reductio ad absurdum:
[Quotes "Prufrock" 'I have seen' to 'and we drown."]The poetic mind leaps the gulf from the exterior world, the trivialities of Mr. Prufrock, diffident, ridiculous, in the drawing-room, Mr. Apollinax's laughter 'submarine and profound' transports him from the desiccated new-statesmanly atmosphere of Professor Canning-Cheetah's. Mr. Eliot's melody rushes out like the thought of Fragilion 'among the birch-trees.' Mr. Waugh is my bitten macaroon at this festival.T.S. Eliot's critique of Pound's poetry
UNSIGNED REVIEW, TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT. 21 June 1917, no. 805, 299.
Mr. Eliot's notion of poetry - he calls the 'observations' poems - seems to be a purely analytical treatment, verging sometimes on the catalogue, of personal relations and environments, uninspired by any glimpse beyond them and untouched by any genuine rush of feeling. As, even on this basis, he remains frequently inarticulate, his 'poems' will hardly be read by many with enjoyment. For the catalogue manner we may commend "Rhapsody on a Windy Night":
[Quotes 'Half-past one' to 'a crooked pin'.]This recalls other twisted things to the mind, and later the street lamp said:
[Quotes 'Remark the cat' to 'which I held him'.]Among other reminiscences which pass through the rhapsodist's mind and which he thinks the public should know about, are 'dust in crevices, smells of chestnuts in the streets, and female smells in shuttered rooms, and cigarettes in corridors, and cocktail smells in bars.'The fact that these things occurred to the mind of Mr. Eliot is surely of the very smallest importance to any one - even to himself. They certainly have no relation to 'poetry,' and we only give an example because some of the pieces, he states, have appeared in a periodical which claims that word as its title.
From an UNSIGNED REVIEW, LITERARY WORLD. 5 July 1917, vol. lxxxiii, 107.
Mr. Eliot is one of those clever young men who find it amusing to pull the leg of a sober reviewer. We can imagine his saying to his friends: 'See me have a lark out of the old fogies who don't know a poem from a pea-shooter. I'll just put down the first thing that comes into my head, and call it "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Of course it will be idiotic; but the fogies are sure to praise it, because when they don't understand a thing and yet cannot hold their tongues they find safety in praise.' We once knew a clever musician who found a boisterous delight in playing that pathetic melody "Only a Jew" in two keys at once. At first the effect was amusing in its complete idiocy, but we cannot imagine that our friend would have been so foolish as to print the score. Among a few friends the man of genius is privileged to make a fool of himself. He is usually careful not to do so outside an intimate circle. Mr. Eliot has not the wisdom of youth. If the 'Love Song' is neither witty nor amusing, the other poems are interesting experiments in the bizarre and violent. The subjects of the poems, the imagery, the rhythms have the wilful outlandishness of the young revolutionary idea. We do not wish to appear patronising, but we are certain that Mr. Eliot could do finer work on traditional lines. With him it seems to be a case of missing the effect by too much cleverness. All beauty has in it an element of strangeness, but here the strangeness overbalances the beauty.
UNSIGNED REVIEW, NEW STATESMAN. 18 August 1917, vol. ix, 477.
Mr. Eliot may possibly give us the quintessence of twenty-first century poetry. Certainly much of what he writes is unrecognisable as poetry at present, but it is all decidedly amusing, and it is only fair to say that he does not call these pieces poems. He calls them 'observations,' and the description seems exact, for he has a keen eye as well as a sharp pen, and draws wittily whatever his capricious glance descends on. We do not pretend to follow the drift of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and therefore, instead of quoting from it, we present our readers with the following piece:
[Quotes "The Boston Evening Transcript"]This is Mr. Eliot's highest flight, and we shall treasure it.
EZRA POUND, "T.S. ELIOT," POETRY. August 1917, vol. x, 264-71.
Il n'y a de livres que ceux ou un ecrivain s'est raconte lui-meme en racontant les moeurs de ses contemporains - leurs reves, leurs vanites, leurs amours, et leurs folies. - Remy de GourmontDe Gourmont uses this sentence in writing of the incontestable superiority of Madame Bovary, L'Education Sentimentale and Bouvard et Pecuchet to Salammbo and La Tentation de St. Antoine. A casual thought convinces one that it is true for all prose. Is it true also for poetry? One may give latitude to the interpretation of reves; the gross public would have the poet write little else, but De Gourmont keeps a proportion. The vision should have its place in due setting if we are to believe its reality.The few poems which Mr. Eliot has given us maintain this proportion, as they maintain other proportions of art. After much contemporary work that is merely factitious, much that is good in intention but impotently unfinished and incomplete, much whose flaws are due to sheer ignorance which a year's study or thought might have remedied, it is a comfort to come upon complete art, naive despite its intellectual subtlety, lacking all pretence.It is quite safe to compare Mr. Eliot's work with anything written in French, English or American since the death of Jules Laforgue. The reader will find nothing better, and he will be extremely fortunate if he finds much half as good.The necessity, or at least the advisability of comparing English or American work with French work is not readily granted by the usual English or American writer. If you suggest it, the Englishman answers that he has not thought about it - he does not see why he should bother himself about what goes on south of the channel; the American replies by stating that you are 'no longer American', and I have learned by long experience that this is the bitterest epithet in his vocabulary. The net result is that it is extremely difficult to read one's contemporaries. After a time one tires of 'promise'.I should like the reader to note how complete is Mr. Eliot's depiction of our contemporary condition. He has not confined himself to genre nor to society portraiture. His
lonely men in shirt-sleeves, leaning out of windowsare as real as his ladies who
... come and goHis 'one night cheap hotels' are as much 'there' as are his
Talking of Michaelangelo.
... four wax candles in the darkened room,And, above all, there is no rhetoric, although there is Elizabethan reading in the background. Were I a French critic, skilled in their elaborate art of writing books about books, I should probably go to some length discussing Mr. Eliot's two sorts of metaphor: his wholly unrealizable, always apt, half ironic suggestion, and his precise realizable picture. It would be possible to point out his method of conveying a whole situation and half a character by three words of a quoted phrase; his constant aliveness, his mingling of very subtle observation with the unexpectedness of a backhanded cliche. It is, however, extremely dangerous to point out such devices. The method is Mr. Eliot's own, but as soon as one has reduced even a fragment of it to formula, someone else, not Mr. Eliot, someone else wholly lacking in his aptitudes, will at once try to make poetry by mimicking his external procedure. And this indefinite 'someone' will, needless to say, make a botch of it.For what the statement is worth, Mr. Eliot's work interests me more than that of any other poet now writing in English. The most interesting poems in Victorian English are Browning's Men and Women, or, if that statement is too absolute, let me contend that the form of these poems is the most vital form of that period of English, and that the poems written in that form are the least like each other in content. Antiquity gave us Ovid's Heroides and Theocritus' woman using magic. The form of Browning's Men and Women is more alive than the epistolary form of the Heroides. Browning included a certain amount of ratiocination and of purely intellectual comment, and in just that proportion he lost intensity. Since Browning there have been very few good poems of this sort. Mr. Eliot has made two notable additions to the list. And he has placed his people in contemporary settings, which is much more difficult than to render them with medieval romantic trappings. If it is permitted to make comparison with a different art, let me say that he has used contemporary detail very much as Velasquez used contemporary detail in "Las Meninas"; the cold gray-green tones of the Spanish painter have, it seems to me, an emotional value not unlike the emotional value of Mr. Eliot's rhythms, and of his vocabulary.James Joyce has written the best novel of my decade, and perhaps the best criticism of it has come from a Belgian who said, 'All this is as true of my country as of Ireland'. Eliot has a like ubiquity of application. Art does not avoid universals, it strikes at them all the harder in that it strikes through particulars. Eliot's work rests apart from that of the many new writers who have used the present freedoms to no advantage, who have gained no new precisions of language, and no variety in their cadence. His men in shirt-sleeves, and his society ladies, are not a local manifestation; they are the stuff of our modern world, and true of more countries than one. I would praise the work for its fine tone, its humanity, and its realism; for all good art is realism of one sort or another.It is complained that Eliot is lacking in emotion. "La Figlia Che Piange" is sufficient confutation to that rubbish.If the reader wishes mastery of 'regular form', the "Conversation Galante" is sufficient to show that symmetrical form is within Mr. Eliot's grasp. You will hardly find such neatness save in France; such modern neatness, save in Laforgue.De Gourmont's phrase to the contrary notwithstanding, the supreme test of a book is that we should feel some unusual intelligence working behind the words. By this test various other new books, that I have, or might have, beside me, go to pieces. The barrels of sham poetry that every decade and school and fashion produce, go to pieces. It is sometimes extremely difficult to find any other particular reason for their being so unsatisfactory. I have expressly written here not 'intellect' but 'intelligence.' There is no intelligence without emotion. The emotion may be anterior or concurrent. There may be emotion without much intelligence, but that does not concern us.Versification:A conviction as to the rightness or wrongness of vers libre is no guarantee of a poet. I doubt if there is much use trying to classify the various kinds of vers libre, but there is an anarchy which may be vastly overdone; and there is a monotony of bad usage as tiresome as any typical eighteenth or nineteenth century flatness.In a recent article Mr. Eliot contended, or seemed to contend, that good vers libre was little more than a skillful evasion of the better known English metres. His article was defective in that he omitted all consideration of metres depending on quantity, alliteration, etc., in fact he wrote as if metres were measured by accent. This may have been tactful on his part, it may have brought his article nearer to the comprehension of his readers (that is, those of the New Statesman, in which the article appeared, people who are chiefly concerned with sociology of the 'button' and 'unit' variety). But he came nearer the fact when he wrote elsewhere: 'No vers is libre Alexandrine and other grammarians have made cubby-holes for various groupings of syllables; they have put names upon them, and have given various labels to 'metres' consisting of combinations of these different groups. Thus it would be hard to escape contact with some group or other; only an encyclopedist could ever be half sure he had done so. The know categories would allow a fair liberty to the most conscientious traditionalist. The most fanatical vers-librist will escape them with difficulty. However, I do not think there is any crying need for verse with absolutely no rhythmical basis.On the other hand, I do not believe that Chopin wrote to a metronome. There is undoubtedly a sense of music that takes count of the 'shape' of the rhythm in a melody rather than of bar divisions, which came rather late in the history of written music and were certainly not the first or most important thing that musicians tried to record. The creation of such shapes is part of thematic invention. Some musicians have the faculty of invention, rhythmic, melodic. Likewise some poets.Treatises full of musical notes and of long and short marks have never been convincingly useful. Find a man with thematic invention and all he can say is that he gets what the Celts call a 'chune' in his head, and that the words 'go into it,' or when they don't 'go into it' they 'stick out and worry him.'You can not force a person to play a musical masterpiece correctly, even by having the notes correctly printed on the paper before him; neither can you force a person to feel the movement of poetry, be the metre 'regular' or 'irregular.' I have heard Mr. Yeats trying to read Burns, struggling in vain to fit the "Birks o' Aberfeldy" and "Bonnie Alexander" into the mournful keen of the "Wind among the Reeds". Even in regular metres there are incompatible systems of music.I have heard the best orchestral conductor in England read poems in free verse, poems in which the rhythm was so faint as to be almost imperceptible. He read them with the author's cadence, with flawless correctness. A distinguished statesman read from the same book, with the intonations of a legal document, paying no attention to the movement inherent in the words before him. I have heard a celebrated Dante scholar and medieval enthusiast read the sonnets of the Vita Nuova as if they were not only prose, but the ignominious prose of a man devoid of emotions: an utter castration.The leader of orchestra said to me, 'There is more for a musician in a few lines with something rough or uneven, such as Byron's
Four rings of light upon the ceiling overhead,
An atmosphere of Juliet's tomb.
There be none of Beauty's daughtersthan in whole pages of regular poetry.'Unless a man can put some thematic invention into vers libre, he would perhaps do well to stick to 'regular' metres, which have certain chances of being musical from their form, and certain other chances of being musical through his failure in fitting the form. In vers libre his sole musical chance lies in invention.Mr. Eliot is one of the very few who have brought in a personal rhythm, an identifiable quality of sound as well as of style. And at any rate, his book is the best thing in poetry since ... (for the sake of peace I will leave that date to the imagination). I have read most of the poems many times; I last read the whole book at breakfast time and from flimsy and grimy proof-sheets: I believe these are 'test conditions.' Confound it, the fellow can write - we may as well sit up and take notice.T.S. Eliot's critique of Pound's poetry
With a magic like thee;
From CONRAD AIKEN, "DIVERS REALISTS," DIAL. 8 November 1917, vol. lxiii, 454-5.
Mr. T.S. Eliot, whose book Prufrock and Other Observations is really hardly more than a pamphlet, is also a realist, but of a different sort. Like Mr. Gibson, Mr. Eliot is a psychologist; but his intuitions are keener; his technique subtler. For the two semi-narrative psychological portraits which form the greater and better part of his book, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" and the "Portrait of a Lady," one can have little but praise. This is psychological realism, but in a highly subjective or introspective vein; whereas Mr. Gibson, for example, gives us, in the third person, the reactions of an individual to a situation which is largely external (an accident, let us say), Mr. Eliot gives us, in the first person, the reactions of an individual to a situation for which to a large extent his own character is responsible. Such work is more purely autobiographic than the other -the field is narrowed, and the terms are idiosyncratic (sometimes almost blindly so). The dangers of such work are obvious: one must be certain that one's mental character and idiom are sufficiently close to the norm to be comprehensible or significant. In this respect, Mr. Eliot is near the border-line. His temperament is peculiar, it is sometimes, as remarked heretofore, almost bafflingly peculiar, but on the whole it is the average hyper-aesthetic one with a good deal of introspective curiosity; it will puzzle many, it will delight a few. Mr. Eliot writes pungently and sharply, with an eye for unexpected and vivid details, and, particularly in the two longer poems and in the "Rhapsody on a Windy Night," he shows himself to be an exceptionally acute technician. Such free rhyme as this, with irregular line lengths, is difficult to write well, and Mr. Eliot does it well enough to make one wonder whether such a form is not what the adorers of free verse will eventually have to come to. In the rest of Mr. Eliot's volume one finds the piquant and the trivial in about equal proportions.
From EZRA POUND, "A LETTER FROM REMY DE GOURMONT," LITTLE REVIEW. December 1917, vol. ix, 6-7.
If only my great correspondent could have seen letters I received about this time from English alleged intellectuals!!!!!!! The incredible stupidity, the ingrained refusal of thought!!!!! Of which more anon, if I can bring myself to it. Or let it pass? Let us say simply that De Gourmont's words form an interesting contrast with the methods employed by the British literary episcopacy to keep one from writing what one thinks, or to punish one (financially) for having done so.Perhaps as a warning to young writers who can not afford the loss, one would be justified in printing the following:
It is not that Mr. Keats (if that be his real name, for we almost doubt that any man in his senses would put his real name to such a rhapsody)wrote their Gifford of Keats' "Endymion." My only comment is that the Quarterly has done it again. Their Mr. A. Waugh is a lineal descendent of Gifford, by way of mentality. A century has not taught them manners. In the eighteen forties they were still defending the review of Keats. And more recently Waugh has lifted up his senile slobber against Mr. Eliot. It is indeed time that the functions of both English and American literature were taken over by younger and better men.As for their laying the birch on my pocket. I compute that my support of Lewis and Brzeska has cost me at the lowest estimate about £20 per year, from one source alone since that regrettable occurrence, since I dared to discern a great sculptor and a great painter in the midst of England's artistic desolation. ('European and Asiatic papers please copy'.)Young men, desirous of finding before all things smooth berths and elderly consolations, are cautioned to behave more circumspectly.T.S. Eliot's critique of Pound's poetry
MAY SINCLAIR, "PRUFROCK AND OTHER OBSERVATIONS: A CRITICISM," LITTLE REVIEW. December 1917, vol. iv, 8-14.
So far I have seen two and only two reviews of Mr. Eliot's poems: one by Ezra Pound in the Egoist, one by an anonymous writer in the New Statesman. I learn from Mr. Pound's review that there is a third, by Mr. Arthur Waugh, in the Quarterly.To Mr. Ezra Pound Mr. Eliot is a poet with genius as incontestable as the genius of Browning. To the anonymous one he is an insignificant phenomenon that may be appropriately disposed of among the Shorter Notices. To Mr. Waugh, quoted by Mr. Pound, he is a 'drunken Helot'. I do not know what Mr. Pound would say to the anonymous one, but I can imagine. Anyhow, to him the Quarterly reviewer is 'the silly old Waugh'. And that is enough for Mr. Pound. It ought to be enough for me. Of course I know that genius does inevitably provoke these outbursts of silliness. I know that Mr. Waugh is simply keeping up the good old manly traditions of the Quarterly, 'so savage and tartarly,' with its war-cry: 'Ere's a stranger, let's 'cave 'arf a brick at 'im!' And though the behaviour of the New Statesman puzzles me, since it has an editor who sometimes knows better, and really ought to have known better this time, still the 'New Statesman' also can plead precendent. But when Mr. Waugh calls Mr. Eliot 'a drunken Helot,' it is clear that he thinks he is on the track of a tendency and is making a public example of Mr. Eliot. And when the anonymous one with every appearance of deliberation picks out his "Boston Evening Transcript," the one insignificant, the one negligible and trivial thing in a very serious volume, and assures us that it represents Mr. Eliot at his finest and his best, it is equally clear that we have to do with something more than mere journalistic misadventure. And I think it is something more than Mr. Eliot's genius that has terrified the Quarterly into exposing him in the full glare of publicity and the New Statesman into shoving him and his masterpieces away out of the public sight.For "The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and the "Portrait of a Lady" are masterpieces in the same sense and in the same degree as Browning's Romances and Men and Women; the "Preludes" and "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" are masterpieces in a profounder sense and a greater degree than Henley's London Voluntaries; "La Figlia Che Piange" is a masterpiece in its own sense and in its own degree. It is a unique masterpiece.But Mr. Eliot is dangerous. Mr. Eliot is associated with an unpopular movement and with unpopular people. His "Preludes" and his "Rhapsody" appeared in Blast. They stood out from the experimental violences of Blast with an air of tranquil and triumphant achievement; but, no matter; it was in Blast that they appeared. That circumstance alone was disturbing to the comfortable respectability of Mr. Waugh and the New Statesman.And apart from this purely extraneous happening, Mr. Eliot's genius is in itself disturbing. It is elusive; it is difficult; it demands a distinct effort of attention. Comfortable and respectable people could see, in the first moment after dinner, what Mr. Henley and Mr. Robert Louis Stevenson and Mr. Rudyard Kipling would be at; for the genius of these three travelled, comfortably and fairly respectably, along the great high roads. They could even, with a little boosting, follow Francis Thompson's flight in mid-air, partly because it was signalled to them by the sound and shining of his wings, partly because Thompson had hitched himself securely to some well-known starry team. He was in the poetic tradition all right. People knew where they were with him, just as they know now where they are with Mr. Davies and his fields and flowers and birds.But Mr. Eliot is not in any tradition at all, not even in Browning's and Henley's tradition. His resemblances to Browning and Henley are superficial. His difference is twofold; a difference of method and technique; a difference of sight and aim. He does not see anything between him and reality, and he makes straight for the reality he sees; he cuts all his corners and his curves; and this directness of method is startling and upsetting to comfortable, respectable people accustomed to going superfluously in and out of corners and carefully round curves. Unless you are prepared to follow with the same nimbleness and straightness you will never arrive with Mr. Eliot at his meaning. Therefore the only comfortable thing is to sit down and pretend, either that Mr. Eliot is a 'Helot' too drunk to have any meaning, or that his "Boston Evening Transcript" which you do understand is greater than his "Love Song of Prufrock" which you do not understand. In both instances you have successfully obscured the issue.Again, the comfortable and respectable mind loves conventional beauty, and some of the realities that Mr. Eliot sees are not beautiful. He insists on your seeing very vividly, as he sees them, the streets of his "Preludes" and "Rhapsody." He insists on your smelling them.
[Quotes "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" 'Regard that woman' to 'rancid butter'.]He is
... aware of the damp souls of housemaidsAnd these things are ugly. The comfortable mind turns away from them in disgust. It identifies Mr. Eliot with a modern tendency; it labels him securely 'Stark Realist', so that lovers of 'true poetry' may beware.It is nothing to the comfortable mind that Mr. Eliot is
Sprouting despondently at area gates.
... moved by fancies that are curledIt is nothing to it that the emotion he disengages from his ugliest image is unbearably poignant. His poignancy is as unpleasant as his ugliness, disturbing to comfort.We are to observe that Mr. Eliot's Observations are ugly and unpleasant and obscure.Now there is no earthly reason why Mr. Eliot should not be ugly and unpleasant if he pleases, no reason why he should not do in words what Hogarth did in painting, provided he does it well enough. Only, the comfortable mind that prefers So and So and So and So to Mr. Eliot ought to prefer Hogarth's "Paul Before Felix" to his "Harlot's Progress." Obscurity, if he were really obscure, would be another matter. But there was a time when the transparent Tennyson was judged obscure; when people wondered what under heaven the young man was after; they couldn't tell for the life of them whether it was his 'dreary gleams' or his 'curlews' that were flying over Locksley Hall. Obscurity may come from defective syntax, from a bad style, from confusion of ideas, from involved thinking, from irrelevant association, from sheer piling on of ornament. Mr. Eliot is not obscure in any of these senses.There is also an obscurity of remote or unusual objects, or of familiar objects moving very rapidly. And Mr. Eliot's trick of cutting his corners and his curves makes him seem obscure where he is clear as daylight. His thoughts move very rapidly and by astounding cuts. They move not by logical stages and majestic roundings of the full literary curve, but as live thoughts move in live brains. Thus "La Figlia Che Piange":
Around these images, and cling:
The motion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
[Quotes "La Figlia Che Piange".]I suppose there are minds so comfortable that they would rather not be disturbed by new beauty and by new magic like this. I do not know how much Mr. Eliot's beauty and magic is due to sheer imagination, how much to dexterity of technique, how much to stern and sacred attention to reality; but I do know that without such technique and such attention the finest imagination is futile, and that if Mr. Eliot had written nothing but that one poem he would rank as a poet by right of its perfection.But Mr. Eliot is not a poet of one poem; and if there is anything more astounding and more assured than his performance it is his promise. He knows what he is after. Reality, stripped naked of all rhetoric, of all ornament, of all confusing and obscuring association, is what he is after. His reality may be a modern street or a modern drawing-room; it may be an ordinary human mind suddenly and fatally aware of what is happening to it; Mr. Eliot is careful to present his street and his drawing-room as they are, and Prufrock's thoughts as they are: live thoughts, kicking, running about and jumping, nervily, in a live brain.Prufrock, stung by a longing for reality, escapes from respectability into the street and the October fog.
[Quotes "Prufrock" 'The yellow fog' to 'fell asleep'.]Prufrock has conceived the desperate idea of disturbing the universe. He wonders
[Quotes 'Do I dare' to 'how should I presume?'.]Prufrock realises that it is too late. He is middle-aged. The horrible drawing-room life he has entered has got him.
[Quotes 'And the afternoon' to 'I was afraid'.]His soul can only assert itself in protests and memories. He would have had more chance in the primeval slime.
I should have been a pair of ragged clawsAs he goes downstairs he is aware of his futility, aware that the noticeable thing about him is the 'bald spot in the middle of my hair.' He has an idea; an idea that he can put into action:
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas.
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.He is incapable, he knows that he is incapable of any action more momentous, more disturbing.
[Quotes 'And yet' to 'and we drown.']Observe the method. Instead of writing round and round about Prufrock, explaining that his tragedy is the tragedy of submerged passion, Mr. Eliot simply removes the covering from Prufrock's mind: Prufrock's mind, jumping quickly from actuality to memory and back again, like an animal, hunted, tormented, terribly and poignantly alive. The Love-Song of Prufrock is a song that Balzac might have sung if he had been as great a poet as he was a novelist.It is nothing to the Quarterly and to the New Statesman that Mr. Eliot should have done this thing. But it is a great deal to the few people who care for poetry and insist that it should concern itself with reality. With ideas, if you like, but ideas that are realities and not abstractions.
BABETTE DEUTSCH, "ANOTHER IMPRESSIONIST," NEW REPUBLIC. 16 February 1918, vol. xiv, 89.
A slim little book, bound in pale yellow wrapping-paper, Prufrock invites inspection, as much by the novelty of its appearance as the queer syllables of its title. The individual note which these suggest is even more emphatically pronounced in the poems between its covers.The initial one, which gives its name to the volume, is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Mr. Prufrock, as he explains in his amorous discursions, is no longer young; his hair has perceptibly thinned, his figure has lost what Apollonian contours it may have possessed. He is self-conscious, introspective, timid. In a-metrical but fluent lines, embroidered with unique metaphor, he draws himself; his desires, his memories, his fears. 'Do I dare,' he asks,
[QUOTES "Prufrock," 'Disturb the universe?' to 'with coffee spoons'.]In the end, he does not presume.The method used in this poem is typical of Mr. Eliot's work. Impressions are strung along on a tenuous thread of sense. A familiar situation: the hesitating amours of the middle-aged, the failure of a certain man to establish the expected relation with a certain woman, is given in poetic monologue. The language has the extraordinary quality of common words uncommonly used. Less formal than prose, more nervous than metrical verse, the rhythms are suggestive of program music of an intimate sort. This effect is emphasized by the use of rhyme. It recurs, often internally, with an echoing charm that is heightened by its irregularity. But Mr. Eliot, like M. Geraldy, of whom he is vaguely reminiscent, is so clever a technician that the rhymes are subordinated to afford an unconsidered pleasure.In these 'observations' there is a glimpse of many slight but memorable things: of dirty London streets, crowded with laborers, dilettantes, prostitutes; of polite stupidities in country houses; of satiric fencings; of the stale aroma of familiar things. Mostly they are impressions of a weary mind, looking out upon a crowded personal experience with impartial irony. They have the hall-marks of impressionism: remoteness from vulgar ethics and aesthetics, indifference to the strife of nations and classes, an esoteric humor thrown out in peculiar phrases. Something of Eliot's quality may be got "The Boston Evening Transcript," whimsically suggestive of that fragment of Sappho's: 'Evening, thou that bringest all that bright morning scattered; thou bringest the sheep, the goat, the child back to her mother.'
[Quotes "The Boston Evening Transcript"]
It might be advisable for Mr. Eliot to publish a fangless edition of Prufrock and Other Observations for the gentle reader who likes his literature, like breakfast coffee or grapefruit, sweetened. A mere change in the arrangement of the poems would help a little. It might begin with "La Figlia Che Piange," followed perhaps by the "Portrait of a Lady"; for the gentle reader, in his eagerness for the customary bit of sweets, can be trusted to overlook the ungallantry, the youthful cruelty, of the substance of the "Portrait." It may as well be admitted that this hardened reviewer cursed the poet in his mind for this cruelty while reading the poem; and just when he was ready to find extenuating circumstances - the usual excuses about realism - out came this 'drunken helot' (one can hardly blame the good English reviewer whom Ezra Pound quotes!) with that ending. It is hard to get over this ending with a few moments of thought; it wrenches a piece of life at the roots.As for the gentle reader, this poem could be followed by the lighter ironies of "Aunt Nancy,"[sic] the "Boston Evening Transcript," etc. One would hardly know what to do with the two London pieces. Whistler in his post-impressionistic English studies - and these poems are not entirely unlike Whistler's studies - had the advantage of his more static medium, of a somewhat more romantic temperament, and of the fact that the objects he painted half-hid their ugliness under shadows and the haze of distance. But Eliot deals with life, with beings and things who live and move almost nakedly before his individual mind's eye - in the darkness, in the early sunlight, and in the fog. Whatever one may feel about sweetness in literature, there is also the word honesty, and this man is a faithful friend of the objects he portrays; altogether unlike the sentimentalist who really stabs them treacherously in the back while pretending affection.
EDGAR JEPSON, "RECENT UNITED STATES POETRY," ENGLISH REVIEW. May 1918, vol. xxvi, 426-8.
But the queer and delightful thing is that in the scores of yards of pleasant verse and wamblings and yawpings which have been recently published in the Great Pure Republic I have found a poet, a real poet, who possesses in the highest degree the qualities the new school demands. Western-born of Eastern stock, Mr. T.S. Eliot is United States of the United States; and his poetry is securely as autochthonic as Theocritus. It is new in form, as all genuine poetry is new in form; it is musical with a new music, and that without any straining after newness. The form and music are a natural, integral part of the poet's amazingly fine presentation of his vision of the world.Could anything be more United States, more of the soul of that modern land, than "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock"? It is the very wailing testament of that soul with its cruel clarity of sophisticated vision, its thin, sophisticated emotions, its sophisticated appreciation of a beauty, and its sophisticated yearning for a beauty it cannot dare to make its own and so, at last, live.This is in very truth the lover of the real, up-to-date United States:
[Quotes "Prufrock," 'In the room' to "should I presume?".]And then the end:
[Quotes 'I have heard' to 'and we drown.']Never has the shrinking of the modern spirit from life been expressed so exquisitely and with such truth. Consider, again, that lovely poem, "La Figlia Che Piange":
[Quotes "La Figlia Che Piange".]How delicate and beautiful in the emotion! How exquisite and beautiful the music! This is the very fine flower of the finest spirit of the United States. It would be the last absurdity for such a poet to go West and write for that plopp-eyed bungaroo, the Great-Hearted Young Westerner on the make. It seems incredible that this lovely poem should have been published in Poetry in the year in which the school awarded the prize to that lumbering fakement, "All Life in a Life."
WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS, "PROLOGUE," LITTLE REVIEW. May 1919, vol. vi, 76-8.
A somewhat petulant English college friend of my brother's once remarked that Britons make the best policemen the world has ever seen. I agree with him. It is silly to go into a puckersnatch because some brass-button-minded nincompoop in Kensington flies off the handle and speaks openly about our United States prize poems. This Mr. Jepson - 'Anyone who has heard Mr. J. read Homer and discourse on Catullus would recognize his fitness as a judge and respecter of poetry' - this is Ezra! - this champion of the right is not half a fool. His epithets and phrases - slipshod, rank bad workmanship of a man who has shirked his job, lumbering fakement, cumbrous artificiality, maundering dribble, rancid as Ben Hur - are in the main well-merited. And besides he comes out with one fairly lipped cornet blast: the only distinctive U.S. contributions to the arts have been ragtime and buck-dancing.Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence. If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand manner will save it. It will not be saved above all by an attentuated intellectuality.Our prize poems have been mostly junk - though there is a certain candid indecency of form about Lindsay's work that is attractive. But these poems are especially to be damned not because of superficial bad workmanship but as Mr. J. again correctly adjudges, because they are rehash, repetition - just as Eliot's more exquisite work is rehash, repetition in another way of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck, - conscious or unconscious: -just as there are Pound's early paraphrases from Yeats and his constant later cribbing from the renaissance, Provence and the modern French: men content with the connotations of their masters.But all U.S. verse is not bad according to Mr. J: there is "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."It is convenient to have fixed standards of comparison: all antiquity! And there is always some everlasting Polonius of Kensington forever to rate highly his eternal Eliot. It is because Eliot is a subtle conformist. It tickles the palate of this archbishop of procurers to a lecherous antiquity to hold up Prufrock as a New World type. Prufrock the nibbler at sophistication, endemic in every capital, the not quite (because he refuses to turn his back) is 'the soul of that modern land' the United States!
Blue undershirts,I cannot question Eliot's observation. "Prufrock" is a masterly portrait of the man just below the summit but the type is universal; the model in this case might be Mr. J.No. The New World is Montezuma or, since he was stoned to death in a parley, Guatemozin who had the city of Mexico leveled over him before he was taken: For the rest, there is no man even though he dare who can make beauty his own and 'so at last live,' at least there is no man better situated for that achievement than another. As Prufrock longed for his silly lady so Kensington longs for its Hardanger dairymaid. By a mere twist of the imagination, if Prufrock only knew it, the whole world can be inverted (why else are there wars?) and the mermaids be set warbling to whoever will listen to them. Seesaw and blind-mans-bluff converted into a sort of football.But the summit of United States achievement, according to Mr. J. - who can discourse on Catullus - is that very beautiful poem of Eliot's "La Figlia Che Piange": just the right amount of everything drained through, etc., etc., etc., etc., the rhythm delicately studied out and - IT CONFORMS! ergo here we have 'the very fine flower of the finest spirit of the United States.'Examined closely this poem reveals a highly refined distillation. Added to the already 'faithless' formula of yesterday we have a conscious simplicity:
Upon a line,
It is not necessary to say to you
Anything about it
And I wonder how they should have been together!So we have no choice but to accept the work of this fumbling conjurer.Upon the Jepson filet Eliot balances his mushroom. It is the latest touch from the literary cuisine, it adds to the pleasant outlook from the club window. If to do this, if to be a Whistler at best, in the art of poetry, is to reach the height of poetic expression, then Ezra and Eliot have approached it and tant pis for the rest of us.The Adobe Indian hag sings her lullaby:
The beetle is blindand Kandinsky in his "Uber das Geistige in der Kunst" sets down the following axioms for the artist:
The beetle is blind
The beetle is blind
The beetle is blind, etc., etc.,
Every artist has to express himselfSo we have the fish and the bait but the last rule holds three hooks at once - not for the fish however.I do not overlook De Gourmont's plea for a meeting of the nations but I do believe that when they meet Paris will be more than slightly abashed to find parodies of the middle ages, Dante and Langue D'Oc foisted upon it as the best in United States poetry. Even Eliot who is too fine an artist to allow himself to be exploited by a blockhead grammaticaster turns recently toward 'one definite false note' in his quatrains, which more nearly approach America than ever "La Figlia Che Piange" did. Ezra Pound is a Boscan who has met his Navagiero.
Every artist has to express his epoch.
Every artist has to express the pure and eternal qualities of the art of all men.