The Poets of Rapallo, by Lauren Arrington, Oxford University Press, 256 pp, £25, ISBN: 978-0198846543
What happened to the Yeats of “September 1913”, so passionately angry about the anti-union lockout of that year, to shape the Yeats of August 1924, who could quote Mussolini at, of all things, the opening ceremony of the Tailteann Games, to the effect that “we will trample upon the decomposing corpse of the Goddess of Liberty”? Not much as it happens. It is a central thesis of this interesting book that Yeats always had authoritarian tendencies, filtered through a mythologising nationalism and other more esoteric screens. His political vision was of a Platonic republic led by a strongman or strongmen who, incidentally, liked poetry (Plato, famously, would have banished poets from his ideal city state).
The man/men is crucial, of course, because Yeats’s politics is above all patriarchal. Women are made for the delectation and inspiration of men, not to mention their gratification where possible. This is why he felt so betrayed by certain women in his life – Constance Markievicz for example, who was once a girl in a silk kimono standing with her sister Eva by the great south-facing windows of Lissadell and reminding the poet of a gazelle, but who would have the bad grace to grow into a socialist revolutionary, spending her days “in ignorant good will” and “her nights in argument until her voice grew shrill”. A terrible beauty by any standard. Of course, she sins twice in Yeats’s eyes, being both a strong and independent woman and a socialist. Yeats abhorred the prospect of a proletarian revolution, one of the reasons he was attracted to Il Duce.
Although academia has long come to terms with Yeats’s fascism, at least to the extent of engaging in serious debate on the matter, as a society in general we have avoided confronting it. This is partly because in Ireland we rarely think in terms of left and right, having been governed, more or less without interruption, by the right since the foundation of the state; and partly because Yeats is most frequently seen, at secondary school level and at the level of Fáilte Ireland, through the lens of the Celtic Revival, Lady Gregory, the Abbey Theatre, the Nobel prize (he wasn’t the only fascist to receive it – Knut Hamsun had it before him and would go on to welcome the Nazi invasion of his native Norway), Sligo, Drumcliff, Thoor Ballylee, Synge and the Playboy riots. When we think of his work we think of “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”, “September 1913”, “Easter 1916” and perhaps the light of evening in Lissadell.
But his friendship with Ezra Pound and his admiration for authoritarian government is uncontested, as is his relatively brief (by 1934 he was already referring to the fasces as a “bundle of dry sticks”) support for Italian fascism and our own Blueshirts and for those he perceived as strongmen, like Kevin O’Higgins. His Blueshirt marching songs, equally execrable as poetry and song, rejected even by the Blueshirts themselves, are often paraded as an example of how disconnected he was from actually existing fascism in Ireland, but credulousness and naivety are hardly an excuse for admiring Mussolini, whose party had already, by 1924, been responsible for strike-breaking on a grand scale, the burning of opposition premises including trade union buildings and the torture and deaths of hundreds of anti-fascists including, just a matter of weeks before Yeats’s speech at the Tailteann Games, the heroic socialist lawyer and member of parliament Giacomo Matteotti, taken out by a fascist murder squad and stabbed to death with a carpenter’s file. In fact Yeats, though he would eventually become disillusioned with Mussolini and with the Blueshirts, never really abandoned any of the convictions that brought him to dabble in the ideology of fascism and would again, in the 1935 broadside ballads, use “a popular form to reassert elite political power”, as Arrington puts it. In fact he was still singing the “hard-riding country gentlemen” in the year before he died. Change the language and he could as well be celebrating the hard-riding latifundisti (landed gentry) who employed the fascist squadristi as enforcers and funded Mussolini’s rise to power.
None of this is to gainsay the undeniable power of Yeats’s work, of which I am an admirer, but merely to point out that perhaps an excess of arrogance and wilful blindness bewildered him at a certain point. To borrow Wyndham Lewis’s felicitous description of Pound, Yeats was, in many regards, a “revolutionary simpleton”. That both he and the original possessor of the soubriquet wrote some of the most sublime poetry of the twentieth century is no more than to say that poets don’t always know what’s going on and, perhaps, should get out more.
All of this is teased out in this beautifully produced and meticulously researched book which is primarily focused on the politics of a small group of writers who for one reason or another met in the little Italian Riviera town of Rapallo in the twenties and thirties and clustered around the one permanent resident – Ezra Pound. Subtitled “How Mussolini’s Italy shaped British, Irish and U.S. writers”, it sets out to show that the rise of fascism, particularly in the country of its origin, had a profound influence on the thinking and the writing of poetry between the two world wars, particularly through the influence of the éminence grise of Modernism Ezra Pound. Also recently published, Massimo Bacigalupo’s more personal exploration of Pound’s life in Rapallo and his postwar afterlife (reviewed here https://drb.ie/articles/il-miglior-fabbro/), may be read alongside Arrington’s book to give a complete picture of the enigmatic American. The Poets of Rapallo takes Pound’s fascism as a given – which it undeniably was – and its focus is firmly and interestingly on Yeats and to a lesser extent on the others of the group. Bacigalupo’s book is focused on a close reading of the Cantos, moderated through his personal friendship with Pound and illuminated by his local knowledge, whereas Arrington’s book is a detailed examination of the milieu and its politics. It is, however, surprising that apart from a passing reference, Lauren Arrington makes no use of Bacigalupo, whose extensive and authoritative work on Pound spans many decades.
Pound was, as an Italian friend of mine once described him, un fascistone (a massive fascist, as we might say in Ireland), but in fairness to Yeats, the Irish poet does seem to have come to his senses about Pound’s dream of Italy at some point. Others, however, got there earlier and some never lost them at all. Hemingway, who knew something about Italy, having been an ambulance driver and wounded on the Italian front in the last year of WWI, had this to say to Pound about Mussolini and the Blackshirts:
If you actually and honest to God or what have you admire or respect the gent and all his works all I can say is SHIT and if I ever start to see any leanings in that direction, obvious ones … yr. secret ones being your own business ‑ I will take practical steps by denouncing you here in Paris as a dangerous anti-fascist and we can amuse one another by counting the hours before you get beaten up in spite of your probity …
Being beaten up was the least of the worries of known anti-fascists as the case of Matteotti demonstrates. And as the regime matured in the late twenties it dealt with intellectual enemies by imprisonment (the communist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, for example) or confine – a form of internal banishment to isolated places and islands. Writers such as Carlo Levi and political opponents such as the Rosselli brothers were sentenced to internal banishment, in Levi’s case leading to the beautiful memoir of his time in the far south of the peninsula, Christ Stopped At Eboli. The Rosselli brothers would escape and eventually be murdered in exile in France by a squad of cagoulards, French fascists, at the command of Mussolini. Gramsci would die in prison. This is the regime that Pound and, initially at least, Yeats placed their trust in. It’s worth remembering that many writers, Irish writers among them, saw through to what fascism actually meant. We could mention Charlie Donnelly, who died fighting at the battle of Jarama in the Spanish Civil War, or the communist Peadar O’Donnell. In Great Britain the list is long and distinguished, including Virginia Woolf, George Orwell and WH Auden among others.
A case in point is the poet Richard Aldington, one of Pound’s protégés. He spent time in Rapallo with his writer partner Brigit Patmore and sat at the great man’s feet and took tea with WB and George Yeats. He also spent some time in Rome during the build-up to the fascist coup. In 1932 he wrote to Thomas MacGreevy: “Those Italians in power now are shits, real shits and a most disturbing force in Europe.” Fascism appears thinly disguised in his “The Vision of Hell”, part of a longer poem called A Fool i’ The Forest (1924):
… millions of persons were consumed to smoke.
Out of ten thousand towering chimneys
Gushed black greasy smoke
That whitened to a cloud of banknotes.
By the throne stood policemen-lictors
Bearing fasces made of golf-clubs
The analogy with the Holocaust in the first lines is accidental but prescient, somewhat in the way that Kafka’s The Trial was prescient. But the depiction of the fascists as “policemen-lictors” with fasces made of a bundle of golf-clubs is spot on. Italian fascism, pretending to revolution and to a sort of coarse ordinariness (their motto was “Me Ne Frego” – roughly “I don’t give a shit”), was bourgeois to the core, sustained by funds from industrialists and landlords who used the squadristi rank and file as strike-breakers and enforcers.
Thomas MacGreevy too, a Rapallo visitor and an early admirer of Pound, saw through the regime. In later years, writing of de Valera’s attempt to change the voting system in Ireland from proportional representation to “first past the post”, he referred to the “Italian Black and Tannery in Abyssinia” and talked about the “tyranny of authority imposed by unproductive capital from above”.
The Poets of Rapallo sets out to read Pound and his visitors against this backdrop of developing authoritarianism. This is quite a trick to pull off since fascist Italy was more interested in power-projecting architecture and film than in literature. It paid very little heed to Ezra Pound or WB Yeats. Arrington argues the case for Yeats very well, with tour de force essays on his poetry and plays. The argument for Pound is somewhat less clear-cut, perhaps because Pound was a fascist avant la lettre, or at least very early in the alphabet, and there is very little to add at this stage. But there is much else of interest, including fascinating insights into the aesthetic debates of the group and their working methods. The book is worth reading for this alone.
The cast of characters is well-known. Aside from “the WBs”, as Pound called them, we meet Richard Aldington and Thomas MacGreevy, both war veterans, MacGreevy being Irish; Basil Bunting who, while happily helping to edit Pound’s propagandist newspaper supplement Il Mare, nevertheless was antipathetic to fascism and would eventually abhor Pound’s racism and antisemitism, telling him in 1938: “It makes me sick to see you covering yourself with such filth”; and most bizarrely Louis Zukovsky, a Jew and a communist who would agonise about the relationship in the postwar period when the details of the Holocaust were known. The friendship with Zukovsky is particularly interesting given Pound’s rabid antisemitism and somewhat less vehement anti-communism. As Bacigalupo makes clear (https://drb.ie/articles/il-miglior-fabbro/), Pound was on friendly terms with many Jewish scholars and writers in Italy. His antisemitism, it seems, was nothing personal. This is no excuse for his antisemitic propaganda but it merely shows the utility of Wyndham Lewis’s characterisation – the “revolutionary simpleton”.
Bunting and Zukovsky, against their wishes were subjected to the embarrassment of having Pound’s first openly fascist Guide To Kulchur dedicated to them and their response to the unwanted dedication was to produce a Marxist anthology which specifically rejected Pound’s method. Incidentally, am I alone in being irritated beyond measure at Pound’s persistent habit of writing in baby talk, schoolboy wordplay (“Kulchur”) or fake “dialect”,’ including a racist pastiche of African-American speech? Here’s a sample from a letter from Pound to Zukovsky:
Mittle and Nord Europa less seasonable for Semites than they wass lass year. … Nooz is that H.D. is consortin with Siggy Freud. Have axd her to ax F. to hexplain it, but bet ten bx or biscuit she dont ax him. (I mean the outburst toward pogrum in boschland).
Of the women, George Yeats is much referenced and comes across as a fascinating character, very much the intellectual equal of her husband, and with a better grasp of reality. Brigit Patmore too seems to have been a strong character and a writer herself. Dorothy Pound, a painter in the vorticist style, was a formidable intellect as well as a significant influence on Pound, though she never took credit for that influence. Her artistic knowledge, particularly about architecture, informed much of Pound’s thinking on the subject. Arrington argues that her fascist sympathies, though not openly expressed, are “encoded in the aesthetics of her architectural drawings and watercolors”. As it happens, Mussolini was fortunate in his architects. Unlike Nazism, Italian fascism was not prescriptive about art. There would be no exhibitions of Entartete Kunst (“degenerate art”) and writers and artists were allowed to carry on as long as they weren’t openly anti-fascist, and many did.
The weight of material associated with the women of the group is valuable and fascinating. I am not sufficiently knowledgeable about the milieu to be able to say that it is novel, but I certainly welcome it. It is an important balance to the misogynistic, homophobic and masculinist influence of Pound who, for example, deliberately excluded women writers from his magazine The Exile. A full-length monograph on the Rapallo women would be fascinating.
A particularly interesting chapter entitled “Singing School” examines Yeats’s instrumentalisation of Robert Burns as a model for his own later broadside ballad style. It demonstrates something I have always believed, that poets are generally more interested in the usefulness of other poets for their own work, choosing to read them in relation to their own production, as distinct from critics, who tend to, or should, read a poet solely to understand and elucidate. Though perhaps I am being too generous here. Critics too have egos that must be justified. Pound, Zukovski and Bunting also turned to Burns for inspiration, in what can only be described as a fetishisation of the primitive (early Coleridge and Wordsworth redux perhaps). Yeats’s turn to the demotic in the form of the broadside ballads ultimately leads WH Auden to claim him for democracy in his essay “The Public v the Late Mr William Butler Yeats”. Arrington disagrees. She goes on to consider Yeats’s plays in the light of fascist aesthetics and finds them riddled. The Poets of Rapallo demonstrates quite clearly that the roots of the demotic turn, like much else in Yeats’s work, lie in conversations in Rapallo and the backdrop of the scene is, indeed, Italian fascism.
So how did “Mussolini’s Italy” shape these writers? The Poets of Rapallo suggests that the various responses of the poets to the development of fascism and its inevitable horrors had a profound influence on their lives and their work. This is most clearly seen in the chapters on Yeats and in the final chapter which examines the postwar situation: “Accounting for Rapallo”. We find MacGreevy, Bunting, Aldington and Zukovsky (Yeats died in 1939) attempting to come to terms, in the context of the war and the Holocaust, with their relationship to a man who had supported this brutal regime and still did, and ultimately settling on denial, evasion and outright lying about the extent of their involvement and the influence exerted by Pound on their work. The pity is that Yeats did not survive long enough to make his contribution to the spectacle. I doubt that even Yeats could imagine the extent of fascist iniquity.
An anecdote at the beginning of Chapter 2 must suffice to close this review.
The original account is from Brigit Patmore’s 1968 memoir My Friends When Young, which is retold in The Poets of Rapallo. Yeats, at dinner in the Albergo Rapallo, turns “to Brigit Patmore and Richard Aldington and asks the impossible question, ‘How do you account for Ezra?’” It is 1929 and Pound is already deep in what we would now call conspiracy theories. Yeats replies to his own question: ‘Here we have in him one of the finest poets of our time, some erudition and a high intelligence and yet he is sometimes so – amazingly clumsy – so tactless and does what one might call outrageous things […] And those little books of poetry by new writers he shows me.’ He slanted his head back and said firmly, ‘they are just shell-shocked Walt Whitmans!’ Then he sank down the noble head. ‘But we are all just pebbles on the beach in the backwash of eternity.’
George Yeats’s response from the other side of the table is: “Willie talking poppy-cock?”
William Wall is the author of six novels, five collections of poetry and three of short fiction. His most recent books are Smugglers In the Underground Hug Trade (Doire Press poetry), Grace’s Day and Suzy Suzy (both novels from Head of Zeus, London and New Island, Dublin). His work has been translated into many languages and he himself translates from Italian. www.williamwall.net