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ISSUE:  Autumn 1988
Stone Cottage: Pound, Yeats and Modernism. By James Longenbach. Oxford. $19.95.

Yeats and Pound lived together for three winters just before and during the early years of the Great War. Pound acted as Yeats’ secretary, reading aloud to the older poet, whose eyes were failing. Georgie Hyde-Lees and Dorothy Shakespeare came to visit, and Dorothy would eventually move in, as Pound’s wife. The two men traded advice and opinion about poetry; Pound was later to write about the drama of life there, with

               Uncle William
downstairs composing
that had made a great peeeacock
in the proide ov his oiye

The house they shared stood on the edge of Ashdown Forest, in Sussex. It had six rooms, and it was called Stone Cottage.

James Longenbach has now written the story of the life these men shared in this place. This is literary criticism of the highest order because it eschews the standard ploys of literary criticism. Longenbach means not only to revalue the roots of modernism but the way in which such evaluations should be made. His book does not contain one close reading of a poem. Nor does it openly worry the question of “Whose era was it?” Instead, Longenbach takes on the more challenging task of gathering his materials into a narrative; he is committed, as his preface admits, to “the difficulty and the joy of telling stories.”

Criticism at the present time seems to afford two options: making theories, and telling stories. The first impulse moves toward philosophy, and imagines the possibility of truth. The second moves toward art, and aspires to the creation of beauty. Keats imagined that Truth and Beauty could be reconciled, but the world of literary criticism nervously approaches such a truce. Deconstruction deforms most of the voices that take it up, as if to prove the theory’s theory that language will not allow even the temporary construction of a shapely, meaning-bearing form. At the opposite pole, most literary biography remains blithely committed to applying a transparent language to a found plot. Readers face an unhappy choice: argument without grace or narrative without doubt. But where is the criticism that imagines literature as worthy of an answering act of construction? A few critics have attempted to embed complex theories of literature within careers that display and develop the form-making powers of a personal voice: Kenner and Poirier come to mind. With Stone Cottage, Longenbach joins that company.

One theory that emerges from Longenbach’s story is that modernism in English was a plot, and has one. It was a self-conscious movement in which many vied to become leaders of the pack. Critics pick their favorites and lay their money down. Did the story begin with Conrad and Ford in Surrey, two secret sharers committed to making us see? Or was the real fight between Lawrence and Bloomsbury, over art as expressive versus autotelic form? Then there was the homemade world of America, with Stevens and Santayana— or is it James?—at Harvard, Williams and Steiglitz at Gallery 291, or Frost and his revolutionary dialogue poems, composed as he walked his Derry farm, alone. Whatever Hemingway learned at Stein’s knee he learned too late: Paris was the second wave, and the lost generation rode seaward on energy building since before the war.

No one remained more self-conscious than Pound about the emerging lines of force. He saw that one could channel their power by issuing manifestoes and promoting as well as learning from the work of friends. The standard wisdom has it that influence between Pound and Yeats flowed one way, from the younger poet to the older. In 1912 Pound made some minor revisions of poems Yeats had submitted to Poetry. Yeats called the corrections “misprints,” but the legend held that Pound had shaped the new “freedom of speech,” as Eliot called it, in Reponsibilities. By delving into unpublished manuscripts, Longenbach shows that Yeats had long before begun to unburden himself of the Nineties, “but not until Pound found his own poetry of shadows and dreams old-fashioned was he able to perceive the value of Yeats’ newer style.” More importantly, over the years at Stone Cottage Pound absorbed Yeats’ theory of Symbolism, his scorn for the “bourgeois state of mind,” and his myth of literary history, with its abundance of tragic generations. Pound may have introduced Yeats to Eliot, but Yeats introduced Pound to Joyce. Longenbach not only restores Yeats to a place of primacy within the origins of modernism, but he joins the company of critics—Kermode, Langbaum, Bloom— who have argued that modernism is a Romanticism, not so much a rupture in time as a return to the strength and vision of the best in 19th-century poetry.

Michael Levenson observes in his genealogy of modernism that the early English moderns and especially Pound “were quick to understand the value of association.” Stone Cottage also embodies a theory about the energy that fuels literary movements. Longenbach reads them as alliances between friends. This is above all the story of a friendship and of how the time at Stone Cottage was to loom especially large in a life in which Pound, like his hero Odysseus, was to “lose all companions.” One of Longenbach’s remarkable strategies is to reach forward toward the Pisan Cantos in order to show how concerned they were to be with the memory of the Stone Cottage years. He is thus able to turn this story of a seed-time into a moving gloss on some of the best lines Pound ever wrote.

The story begins with the Rhymers Club, that group of poets from the Nineties of which Yeats was to prove the major survivor. Pound arrived in England envying this lost brotherhood and hoping to join a new one. His effort with Yeats was to set up a “secret society of modernism,” an exclusivity inspired in part by their astounding tolerance for the literature of the occult. Yeats and Pound formed the core of the brotherhood, and others were carefully admitted: Joyce, Eliot, Synge, Gaudier-Brzeska. Perhaps the epiphany of Pound’s quest for fraternity occurred in January 1914, at the dinner held to honor Wilfred Scawen Blunt.

The photograph shows seven men standing before a wall, a kind of modern-day Rhymers Club. At the center is the bearded, white-haired Blunt, the poet Pound called “the last of the great Victorians.” To his right stand Victor Plarr, Sturge Moore, and Yeats, the older generation; while to the left stand Pound, Richard Aldington, F.S. Flint. Only Pound and Yeats have survived as names: what the picture conveys is the impulse to gather, and to celebrate an exclusive fellowship. Pound and Yeats had motored up for the day; the dinner, though in Blunt’s honor, was given by him at his Sussex estate. Longenbach tells the story:

Blunt served the poets a roast peacock, carried to the table in full plumage. Yeats told Lady Gregory that it tasted like turkey but noted that Pound thought it was “a more divine turkey.” For Pound, who was not accustomed to such things, the entire experience was profoundly aristocratic—the antithesis of the bourgeois Academic Committee; he told his mother that the peacock “went very well with the iron-studded barricades on the stairway and other mediaeval relics and Burne-Jones tapestry.” Newbuildings Place was Blunt’s Penshurst, a home where poets could truly dwell.

This unlikely incident was to linger in memory for Pound as he sat in his cell at Pisa, writing his most personal cantos. Their emerging theme was to prove one borrowed from Yeats: “say my glory was I had such friends.” These poems are studded with names from Pound’s English years. When Pound looked back, as Longenbach shows, he looked back upon the sustaining fact of community. So the friendship that might have seemed a means to fame became an end, and the following lines, in which an older poet opens the door to a younger one, reveal that the true value of the activity called modernism was in the experience of human bonds:

But to have done instead of not doing
          this is not vanity
To have, with decency, knocked
That a Blunt should open
      To have gathered from the air a live tradition
or from a fine old eye the unconquered flame
This is not vanity.
     Here error is all in the not done,
all in the diffidence that faltered . . . .

By the time Pound remembered this, his mania for ideas had lost him his friends. He forgot what Longenbach has not forgotten, that the best way to push a theory is to tell a story.


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