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Three American Poets

ISSUE:  Summer 1927

Personce. The Collected Poems of Ezra Pound. New York: Boni & Liveright. $3.50.

Tristram. By Edwin Arlington Robinson. New York: The Macmillan Company. $1.50.

Animula Vagula. By Leonard Bacon. New York: Harper & Brothers. $1.50.


The too widely circulated notion that Ezra Pound is every conceivable kind of ass, a jester and a caperer on Parnassus, thumbing his nose at the muses and spitting on decorum, is both strongly suggested, and strongly and definitely refuted in this volume of his collected poems. Where the notion got its first milk is easily enough seen: a few painfully brilliant gentlemen, dignified as critics, read several such things as “Phanopoeia,” “Ritratto,” and “Cantico del Sole” (which are perfectly worthless, of course), and began subsequently to tear out their hair, shriek torturously, and then to storm the Forum in general—protesting pleasantly against the defamation of an art which they had never practiced. And Ezra Pound was set down as a madman with all his jackasseries upon his head. Not being the first in that chosen circle, but being combative, he determined to lead them on; and because he went rather far in some places (no one is more willing than Pound, I think, to say “Mea culpa!”) he will always raise a dust-storm among those who will never consent to forego their precious prejudices. Time has vindicated the old radicals; perhaps it will do the same for Pound. At least it is encouraging to know that a man like Sandburg can triumph during his lifetime; but it is not due, probably! to the pleaders for convention and the Comstockians of criticism who did their best to bury him alive.

I would not say that Pound is always sincere, any more than I would say the same for E. E. Cummings, and I clearly recognize that (more’s the pity!) both have their moments of wilful eccentricity. But if these fine critics are really so wholeheartedly in search of the pure beauty which they assure us is their aim, why cannot they pass over these contortions and dwell upon what they must needs see is of obvious worth? They read Cummings’ astoundingly lovely “Orientale,” and then proceed to judge him by some absurdity about an organ-grinder; they read Pound’s magnificent “Cathay,” and ignoring it, pretend to find his essence in such an inanity, as “The Psychological Hour.” Like censors, their minds rest only upon depravity, being blinded to what is genuine and good.

But, as I said in the beginning, certain of Pound’s poems do give the impression of literary buffoonery; and it is possible that, like Baudelaire, he delights in flying at the lunacy of his exaggerating detractors. Embittered by his long fight against the pot-brains of conventionality, yet retaining much of a sardonic and caustic humour, his addresses to his critics are documents, delightful enough, of the sæva indignatio of a man accosted at every turn by stupid creeds and dried-up traditions. His abuse comes in a merciless torrent of words. Thus, to one critic:

You slut-bellied obstructionist, You sworn foe to free speech and good letters, You fungus, you continuous gangrene.

Or, to another who saw him as a poseur (which he doubtless is, sometimes):

You say that I take a good deal upon myself; That I strut in the robes of assumption. In a few years no one will remember the buffo, No one will remember the trivial parts of me, The comic detail will be absent. As for you, you will rot in the earth, And it is doubtful if even your manure will be rich enough To keep grass Over your grave.

It would be useless to pretend that such is poetry, for that is the last thing it could be called; but it serves to show how essentially much Pound is despised in the critical world. It is the Dean Swift in Pound defending the Shelley in him. Indeed, in the two months that I have had to read this book as thoughtfully and carefully as is within my power, I have been impressed more and more by the fact that Ezra Pound is really two distinct personalities, with variations (it is not for nothing that he calls his work “Persona?”)—primarily, of course, the sensitive, passionate—I had almost said, romantic—lover of beauty; and secondly, the intense, far-sighted, cynical critic of human affairs, spraying with vitriol all that he hates. Pound in the lyric mood, which is his true mood, can say:

I will sing of the white birds In the blue waters of heaven, The clouds that are spray to its sea.

But the critics will not let him alone; and hiding his sadness under the cloak of anger, the exile speaks in the other mood:

Go, my songs, to the lonely and unsatisfied, Go also to the nerve-wracked, go to the enslaved-  by-convention, Bear them my contempt for their oppressors. Go as a great wave of cool water, Bear my contempt of oppressors. Go out and defy opinion,   . . .  . . .  . . . Go against the vegetable bondage of the blood. Be against all sorts of mortmain.

Without this essential distinction between the two temperaments of the man it is difficult to see how the poet who wrote the beautiful “La Fraisne” could also write “Salvationists.” Perhaps Pound recognizes his own cleverness too well for his own good; “The Bellaires” is an unfortunate example of what a satirist can fall to when he leaves the realm of the intelligence for an excursion into amusing nonsense.

It seems only fit that the idea that Pound is a confirmed experimentalist should be contradicted. To a certain extent he is, of course; but it is curious to note that his experiments are the least successful of all his pieces. “Moeurs Con-temporaines” are neither witty nor penetrating, but perfectly maudlin; and “I Vecchii” is like nothing more than a lapse into babbling delirium. But contrary-wise, the quiet and rhythmic lament for “E. Mc C.” approaches a dignity that but few poets can reach. But whether he employs the oldest forms or makes his own inventions, his music is always intensely, individualized. He can touch perfection as clearly in the “Ballad of the Goodly Fere” (one of the most human and fascinating pictures of Christ ever drawn), as he can in such a thing as the delicately pictorial “Dance Figure.” In this last he is, I think, at his height of expression.

Dark eyed, O woman of my dreams, Ivory sandaled, There is none like thee among the dancers, None with swift feet. I have not found thee in the tents, In the broken darkness. I have not found thee at the well-head Among the women with pitchers.

Thine arms are as a young sapling under the bark; Thy face as a river with lights.

Or again, in “Praise of Ysolt,” which sings long and deeply, like the chanting of a great cathedral choir; or in the perfectly, modulated “Night Litany.”

O God, what great kindness    have we done in times past    and forgotten it, That thou givest this wonder unto us,    O God of waters? O God of the night,    What great sorrow Cometh unto us,    That thou repayest us Before the time of its coming?   . . .  . . .  . . . O God of waters,    make clean our hearts within us,    For I have seen the Shadow of this thy Venice Floating upon the waters,    And thy stars Have seen this thing, out of their far courses Have they seen this thing,    O God of waters, Even as are thy stars Silent unto us in their far-coursing, Even so is mine heart    become silent within me.

If only my space were greater, I should like to quote “Na Audiart,” so perfectly reminiscent of the “Pallas” of Botticelli; and the wonderfully interwoven and suggestive “Piere Vidal Old,” which best shows Pound’s mastery, of modern narrative poetry, the formidable art of which is to deftly hint without obviously telling—an art in which he is no mean second to Browning himself.

A man’s collected poems always hold something of a challenge to “place” him. As to where Ezra Pound will stand it is difficult to know. Perhaps there is something of carelessness and “fling” in his work that will deprive him of long life; but I cannot see that we could willingly let die the best of his poetry—even such as I have quoted here, a meager selection. He is an uncommonly tentative and uneven artist, descending to the most maudlin depths only to rise the next moment to the very zenith of language. In “Silet” he gives us a clue to his own attitude:

Why should we stop at all for what I think? There is enough in what I chance to say.

So believes Ezra Pound, and this very belief is likely to prove his own undoing. What the “Cantos,” upon which he is working at present, will bring forth, we can only, surmise. He may correct the fault of much of his later work, which is a growing tendency to crowd too much thought into an obscure phrase; but it is not probable that he will surpass the best in “Personae.”

Of all living writers he has fought the hardest for the liberation of the poetic technique, for unmistakably individual expression (without which there can be no art), and against the stupidity, pig-headedness, and misappreciation which fan his anger to magnificent protests. Yet, while he is among the half-dozen or so of our really important poets, I should hesitate to call him great. A certain lack of definite direction in his work, a lack of philosophical serenity, place him apart, in my mind at least, from the company of the Olympians.


Edwin Arlington Robinson offers the direct antithesis to Pound, both in technique and in the essential cast of his mind. One comes to write of “Tristram” with no few conflicting emotions. Indeed, i am ready to confess that my own judgment is warped, perhaps, by what amounts to a narrow but deep-rooted prejudice. It seems, and has always seemed, to me that, in the case of age-old legends and age-old histories, the man who has treated them best, who has given them their fullest value and intensity, erects (though without conscious intention) a sort of “Private Property: No Trepassing” sign. Shakespeare erected such signs, and none but a madman would dream of writing a new version of “Hamlet.” Renan erected another such sign when he penned his Life of Christ; and when Papini stepped over the border he wrote a book whose principal interest was derived from the fact that Papini was once a fairly intelligent thinker. And the ancient legend of Tristram, Prince of Lyonesse, is also just such private property, so to speak—belonging, as it does, to one Algernon Charles Swinburne, who brought to it the greatest interpretation in modern times—and so will remain his until there arrives one who can excel him. I may as well say before going further that Edwin Arlington Robinson has not excelled him; that he has, in my sight, scarcely even approached him.

Now, there can be no doubt that Robinson is a great master of words; but so is Swinburne a great master of words— perhaps even a greater. (I must needs say, however, that Robinson’s blank verse is infinitely pleasanter to read than Swinburne’s rather annoying couplets.) But the point is not there. The point is that Robinson is as incapable of writing a tremendous love story as (let us say) Alexander Pope; while Swinburne, on the contrary, with all his southern ardours of temperament, was as peculiarly suited for it as any poet since Keats. (What a pity, by the way, that Keats never tried his hand at Tristram and Isolt, so masterfully might he have done it!) Robinson has all the quiet irony essential to this story; while Swinburne, lacking much of that, has all the white heat of passion that is more essential. The harmonious blending of these two vital elements would give birth to the noblest conceivable “Tristram”; but that they seldom go together, even in the greatest literature, is proved by the fact that “Le Lys Rouge” is the only perfect example of it in our times. Thus it is that Swinburne, the more naive poet, makes his “Tristram” a great tragedy, giving it, perhaps, more pathos than is desirable; while Robinson, the more sophisticated poet, forms the beautiful legend into something like an intellectual comedy—a piece of scintillating brilliance that lacks deep strength. I am not speaking of Robinson’s poetry itself. Within his limitations, his genius for the precise, definite description is impeccable; when Isolt inquires about her rival “like a thing waiting to be hurt,” or when the poet speaks of the sea “lying like sound that now was dead,” we appreciate that. And yet, while many of his lines are perfectly, turned, things of profundity and clarity, how seldom does any wild rush of beauty take the senses by storm! Too confident of his power, he scorns to give it free rein.

It seems not a little curious that a man who has drawn such vivid characters as Miniver Cheevy, Flammonde, and what is indubitably the most life-like of all portraits of Shakespeare (in the fascinating “Ben Jonson Entertains a Man from Stratford”), should fail in this new poem to delineate, with two exceptions, anything resembling very closely, a human being. These former pieces prevent me from accusing Robinson of a lack of the dramatic sense, and I feel confident that he has more than Swinburne; but nevertheless the characters of the English poet stand out with clear personal identity; I can feel their presence, touch their hands; while Robinson’s dramatis persona? move across the stage like vague shadow-shapes out of a remote world, who seem to have sold their birthrights for a mess of conversation. Only King Howel and the subtle Morgan come to me with any enduring reality. Mark, too, appears here and there at the end; and Isolt of Brittany unveils her face in occasional flashes—a face almost unearthly but with a certain youthful freshness. As for Isolt of Ireland, she scarcely emerges at all except to float like an unsubstantial wraith across a narrative, of which she is supposedly the very essence. Although Robinson assures us of her beauty, her maddening fascination, I have only, to close the book to forget—or to remember (which is least complimentary of all) Swinburne’s Isolt. But Tristram himself is the most unsuccessful of any portrait—an indecisive milksop with a half-hearted philosophy, naturally incapable of love for anything resembling a woman; and even without the interest as an ingenious liar, which some of the earlier writers gave to him.

As I said before, it is utterly beyond Robinson to describe great passion, or even the effects of passion. To be most ungracious and ungenerous, his love-scenes remind me of nothing more than a conversation between two perfectly unemotional persons sitting in comfortable arm chairs and speaking, with philosophical asides, of their undying affection, and getting up now and again to bestow a reassuring caress. There is one place towards the end of part III, where he builds up what might develop into a magnificent piece of drama; but just when it appears that Robinson may surpass himself, quite casually, and without reason, he drapes a wet blanket over it all. The nature of this wet blanket is difficult to analyze; but to me it seems a failure in human psychology: only puppets make such thin and clever remarks in the midst of an embrace. Certainly the keynote of much of Tristram’s behaviour is in the fact that he is conscience-stricken and trying to deny his conscience; but to read Robinson you might imagine that his journeys between Cornwall and Brittany were simple pleasure-trips. Now, if the poet’s intentions in “Tristram” are (as I strongly, suspect, although he gives very slight clue) satirical, perhaps this censure may seem a little rough; but if they are not, then, as it seems to me, I have put it very mildly.

To the occasional cry, from critics on the house-tops, that Robinson has written himself out, this latest effort is doomed to add volume and assurance. Yet how justifiably? It is true that there are but two or three scenes here that approach the great and comprehensive intensity of his other work; it is true that this is one of the least original, perhaps the most uninteresting, of anything he has done; but I cannot believe that the fault lies in Robinson’s having exhausted his sources. Rather, I think, his fault consists simply in the fact that he is trying to take extended intellectual exercise within a scope that renders it neither impressive nor convincing.


Of these three poets, Leonard Bacon, while perhaps not so significant as Pound or Robinson, is by all means the most torn and tortured spirit. He has little of Pound’s faith in aesthetic values, little of Robinson’s faith in disinterested philosophy; and Pound’s love of the single beautiful word, Robinson’s passion for the perfectly rounded phrase, leave him utterly cold. Perplexed and driven and unable to restrain what he has to say, he is indifferent as to how he says it. And thus, while his poetry is possessed of extreme vitality, it is often coarse, brutal, and crude, expressing a terrible life-experience and earnestness with an almost boyish recklessness and iconoclasm. I am speaking, of course, of the general tenor of his work; he can achieve such delightful phrases (barring the annoying verb-inversion) as:

  . . .wails the violin Cool as a swordblade laid on fevered skin—

but for the most part his voice is hoarse, delirious—the voice of one crying for light in the wilderness, cursing the darkness, cursing himself.

“Animula Vagula” might well have borne on its title-page those profound lines of Dante to his sad soul:

Tu non se morta, ma se ismarrita, Anima nostra, che si ti lamenti—
for in them is the very essence of the book’s meaning and its rauon d’etre. It represents, as we are given to understand, the shattering experience of a man who has led his spirit and mind into Purgatory, fought with himself in the damp gloom of disillusionment, and then, trying to adjust himself again, has come once more into the sunlight, with a wealth of horror and fuiness behind him. “This,” as the poet says, “is the legend of a fearful thing”—the living-death of Leonard Bacon’s soul and its resurrection. He boasts, rather naively, that he has gone deeper into the pit than the grave Florentine himself; but that very boast, while obviously exaggerated, is proof of the depth and fierceness of his struggle: he has gone so far that he cannot conceive of one’s going farther and ever coming back again.

On the abhorrent brink Where Death is born anew, And the thinker cannot think, And the doer cannot do, There was I too.

A passionate disgust for himself and his world takes him to the bottom of things where he first sees the heights; and there, building up from bed-rock, he learns the essential simplicity of the structure of life; and his instincts, and what amounts to an admiration for his own ego which has found truth, lead him at last from the turmoil and terror.

Yet am I breathless, on the brink emerging, How I scarce know, nor surely could reveal, I who in Hell heard the last trumpet peal, And saw destruction of the soul and worse, And a new Heaven and a new Hell emerging From the chaos of a ruined Universe.

The most admirable thing about Bacon’s poetry is its merciless and powerful sincerity. One positively hears the man speak, with a voice that is neither serene nor very full, but extraordinarily vivid and real. Most volumes of modern verse are in the nature of a “performance,” exhibitions, so often, of mere cleverness and talent; but one closes “Animula Vagula” with the conviction that Bacon wrote it because he could not help writing it, and because it was only through art that he could relieve his suffering, not because art means to him, as it does to the little men, anything besides an outlet for great passion and injury, towards the strengthening and fortifying of the soul.

Bacon is so painfully aware of the falsity and thinness of this post-war generation, that, in his assertion of spiritual claims, the thought of it haunts him continually.

Once there was music, now jangling instruments. Once there was a bright god. Now there is a satyr In a blasted wilderness, eating his heart out, Too well remembering

The clean-limbed and beautiful, bathing in the trout-stream, Where the fall clashes, the young, the white-handed, Sweet and soft-bosomed, exquisite and gentle— Bitterest of memories.

  . . .  . . .  . . .

The satyr sits mournful, in London for instance, Where his hoofs and his haunches are not all unusual, Thinking of a girl who should have had Apollo, And only got Marsyas.

Something about Bacon’s verse (and this last quoted in particular) so reminds me of T. S. Eliot that I cannot but conclude that he has, perhaps, read Eliot to his disadvantage. All that is poor in this volume is in direct descent from the singer of the Wasteland; and the poems XIV and XVII are plainly the hideous Marsyas (whom Bacon so despises) beating out Apollo. That, of course, is not to say that Eliot is unimportant, but to say that Bacon loses ground when he tries to follow him. Bacon is at his best, I think, in the sonnet; and unlike so many sonneteers, he never wears out his thought before he gets beyond the octave, but burns his fierce fires in the sestet with a certainty and force that are all but appalling.

No one can read through “Animula Vagula” without noticing a very remarkable thing about the man who wrote it—that he is never mediocre. Pound is mediocre sometimes, Robinson is often so, but Bacon when he is good, is supreme, and when he is bad, he is unaccountably, worthless: he knows not the indifferent half-way house. So that it is not entirely adequate for me to say, however correctly, that any alert and impressionable reader will find here the record of a passionate and finely-tempered soul, cleansed and purified in the battle which every honest modern man must undergo sometime in his life. That is true, but it is not enough. For I needs must say beyond this that I sincerely believe that, in this thin little volume with its pale-green covers, embodying only twenty-seven brief poems, there are at least ten pages of what is certainly as precious as any poetic stuff distilled in English during this twentieth century.


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