On April 2nd, 1916, one of Yeats’s plays for dancers, At the Hawk’s Well, received its first performance in Lady Emerald Cunard’s drawing room in Cavendish Square, London before an invited audience. Michio Ito danced the guardian of the well. The guests included Ezra Pound and TS Eliot. For all I know, this may have been the only afternoon on which Yeats, Eliot, and Pound were together in the same room. Many years later, Samuel Beckett wrote a play, like At the Hawk’s Well, about waiting; waiting for someone who is supposed to arrive but doesn’t, a variant of waiting for a transforming flow of water which is never received because the guardian of the well distracts those who are longing for it. In Happy Days, Winnie utters the first line of At the Hawk’s Well, “I call to the eye of the mind”, one of many literary allusions that she recalls – or rather, that Beckett recalls on her behalf. I draw a loose connection between these occasions to suggest a literary context for the relations I propose to describe: Yeats and Eliot, Yeats and Pound.
We know when Eliot converted to the Anglican Communion – he made his formal profession on June 9th, 1927 – but we don’t know precisely when he converted to Yeats: that took much longer. The first time he wrote about Yeats was in the Athenaeum, the issue for July 4th, 1919, a memorably severe review of The Cutting of an Agate. Eliot apparently found Yeats’s entire sensibility weird. As much in his prose as in his verse, he said, Yeats “is not ‘of this world’ – this world, of course, being our visible planet with whatever our theology or myth may conceive as below or above it”. Eliot assumes that he is central, and by comparison Yeats is exotically peripheral. The difference between Yeats’s world and ours, Eliot continues in consternation, “is so complete as to seem almost a physiological variety, different nerves and senses”. It was not – or not merely – a matter of Yeats’s interest in ghosts, mediums, leprechauns, and sprites. “When an Englishman explores the mysteries of the Cabala,” Eliot writes, “one knows one’s opinion of him, but Mr. Yeats on any subject is a cause of bewilderment and distress”:
The sprites are not unacceptable; but Mr. Yeats’s daily world, the world which admits these monsters without astonishment, which views them more familiarly than Commercial Road views a Lascar – this is the unknown and unknowable. Mr. Yeats’s mind is a mind in some way independent of experience; and anything that occurs in that mind is of equal importance. It is a mind in which perception of fact, and feeling and thinking are all a little different from ours.
Eliot does not define whom he has in mind by “ours”, or justify bringing forth their values as a decisive criterion. He does not explain how “experience” can be appealed to as a system supposedly held in common. He claims that Yeats’s sensibility cannot be assessed by any available standard:
In Mr. Yeats’s verse, in particular, the qualities can by no means be defined as mere attenuations and faintnesses. When it is compared with the work of any English bard of apparently equivalent thinness, the result is that the English work in question is thin; you can point to something that it ought to be and is not; but of Yeats you cannot say finally that he lacks feeling. He does not pretend to more feeling than he has, perhaps he has a great deal; it is not feeling that standards can measure as passionate or insipid.
Eliot’s problem with Yeats is that he cannot see either his thought or his feeling as having issued from any common source:
He seems, in his disembodied way, to happen on thoughts, thoughts of ‘wisdom,’ and if we are not convinced, it is because we do not see by what right he comes by them.
Perhaps, Eliot allows, Yeats got these wise thoughts from his dreaming; but, even if this is so, “Mr. Yeats’s dream is identical with Mr. Yeats’s reality”, a qualification or continuation of himself.
Eliot quotes, in evidence, four short passages from The Cutting of an Agate, including one –inaccurately quoted indeed – in which Yeats says that the poet must “be content to find his pleasure in all that is for ever passing away that it may come again, in the beauty of woman, in the fragile flowers of spring, in momentary heroic passion, in whatever is most fleeting, most impassioned, as it were, for its own perfection, most eager to return in its glory.”1 “It is a style of Pater,” Eliot justly says, but then he indulges himself in a little racial prejudice, saying “it is a style of Pater, with a trick of the eye and a hanging of the nether lip that come from across the Irish Channel, all the more seductive”. Mr. Yeats,” he says, “sometimes appears, as a philosopher of aesthetics, incoherent”:
But all of his observations are quite consistent with his personality, with his remoteness. His remoteness is not an escape from the world, for he is innocent of any world to escape from; his procedure is blameless, but he does not start where we do.
At this point in his review, Eliot moves toward thinking that to make sense of Yeats you have first to remember that he is an Irishman. To be an Irishman, he thinks, is to be deprived of certain attributes of sensibility, notably of wit, a quality he defined in his essay on Andrew Marvell as featuring “a tough reasonableness beneath the slight lyric grace”:
You cannot find it in Shelley or Keats or Wordsworth; you cannot find more than an echo of it in Landor; still less in Tennyson or Browning; and among contemporaries Mr. Yeats is an Irishman and Mr. Hardy is a modern Englishman – that is to say, Mr. Hardy is without it and Mr. Yeats is outside of the tradition altogether.2
What “the tradition” is Eliot on this occasion does not say: presumably he means a structure of values which Irish men and women lacked, even though Irish culture could point to the various forms of intelligence exemplified by Swift, Yeats, Wilde, Joyce and Shaw. Yeats’s mind, Eliot says further in the review
is, in fact, extreme in egoism, and, as often with egoism, remains a little crude; crude, indeed, as from its remoteness one would expect. There is something of this crudity, and much of this egoism, about what is called Irish Literature: the egoism which obstructs from facing, and the crudity which remains through not having had to face direct contacts. We know also of an evasion, or rather an evacuation of reality by the very civilized; but people civilized to that extent are seldom artists, and Mr. Yeats is always an artist. His crudity and egoism are present in other writers who are Irish; justified by exploitation to the point of greatness, in the later work of Mr. James Joyce.
Joyce, too, seems to be understandable only if you take him to be an Irishman, with the attributes and defects which go with that condition:
Mr. Joyce’s mind is subtle, erudite, even massive; but it is not like Stendhal’s, an instrument continually tempering and purifying emotion; it operates within the medium, the superb current of his feeling. The basis is pure feeling, and if the feeling of Mr. Yeats were equally powerful, it would also justify his thought. Very powerful feeling is crude; the fault of Mr. Yeats’s is that it is crude without being powerful. The weakness of his prose is similar to that of his verse. The trouble is not that it is inconsistent, illogical or incoherent, but that the objects upon which it is directed are not fixed; as in his portraits of Synge and several other Irishmen, we do not seem to get the men themselves before us, but feelings of Mr. Yeats projected. It must always be granted that in verse at least Mr. Yeats’s feeling is not simply crudeness and egoism, but that it has a positive, individual and permanent quality.3
It may have been this quality, common to Yeats and Joyce, which enabled Eliot to think that Yeats had anticipated Joyce in the most far-reaching invention in modern literature. Reviewing Ulysses in 1923, Eliot wrote:
It is here that Mr. Joyce’s parallel use of the Odyssey has a great importance. It has the importance of a scientific discovery … In using the myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him … It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history. It is a method already adumbrated by Mr. Yeats, and of the need for which I believe Mr. Yeats to have been the first contemporary to be conscious … Instead of narrative method, we may now use the mythical method. It is, I seriously believe, a step toward making the modern world possible for art …4
Eliot doesn’t say where Yeats adumbrated the mythical method. I assume it entailed redeeming a mere fact from its penury by presenting it in the light of a higher or a larger perspective. If so, I think Yeats did this notably in such poems as “A Woman Homer Sung” and “No Second Troy”.
It is surprising, then, in view of this achievement, that Eliot continued for several years to comment derisively on Yeats’s dealings with occult images and motifs; though these were also the years in which he recognised the power of Yeats’s later poems. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he wrote:
No one can read Mr. Yeats’s Autobiographies and his earlier poetry without feeling that the author was trying to get as a poet something like the exaltation to be obtained, I believe, from hashisch or nitrous oxide. He was very much fascinated by self-induced trance states, calculated symbolism, mediums, theosophy, crystal-gazing, folklore and hobgoblins. Golden apples, archers, black pigs and such paraphernalia abounded. Often the verse has an hypnotic charm: but you cannot take heaven by magic, especially if you are, like Mr. Yeats, a very sane person. Then, by a great triumph of development, Mr. Yeats began to write and is still writing some of the most beautiful poetry in the language, some of the clearest, simplest, most direct.5
In After Strange Gods – the Page-Barbour lectures that Eliot delivered at the University of Virginia in 1933 – he referred to Pound as “probably the most important living poet in our language” and to Yeats as “the other important poet of our time”, while subjecting both poets to rebuke.6 His complaint against Yeats, which he adopted largely from IA Richards’s Science and Poetry only to make the criticism even more pointed than Richards made it, was that Yeats’s “supernatural world” was “the wrong supernatural world”:
It was not a world of spiritual significance, not a world of real Good and Evil, of holiness or sin, but a highly sophisticated lower mythology summoned, like a physician, to supply the fading pulse of poetry with some transient stimulant so that the dying patient may utter his last words. In its extreme self-consciousness it approaches the mythology of D. H. Lawrence on its more decadent side. We admire Mr. Yeats for having outgrown it; for having packed away his bibelots and resigned himself to live in an apartment furnished in the barest simplicity. A few faded beauties remain: Babylon, Nineveh, Helen of Troy, and such souvenirs of youth: but the austerity of Mr. Yeats’s later verse on the whole, should compel the admiration of the least sympathetic.
Not that Eliot had entirely done with rebuke:
Though the tone is often of regret, sometimes of resignation:
Things said or done long years ago,
Or things I did not do or say
But thought that I might say or do,
Weigh me down, and not a day
But something is recalled,
My conscience or my vanity appalled.
and though Mr. Yeats is still perhaps a little too much the weather-worn Triton among the streams, he has arrived at greatness against the greatest odds; if he has not arrived at a central and universal philosophy he has at least discarded, for the most part, the trifling and eccentric, the provincial in time and place.7
Eliot seems to have in mind, without saying so much, that Yeats is inferior to Dante in the matter of a central and universal philosophy.
It soon appears that Eliot’s conversion to Yeats – or rather to the later Yeats – was made sometime between late 1933 and 1935. By 1935 he had come to appreciate Yeats’s significance; first in relation to the Abbey Theatre, which “kept poetry in the theatre” and “maintained literary standards which had long since disappeared from the English stage”; and then for the poetry itself, of which Eliot said that “Mr. Yeats has been and is the greatest poet of his time”. “I can think of no poet, not even among the very greatest, who has shown a longer period of development than Yeats.” Development “to this extent is not merely genius, it is character; and it sets a standard which his juniors should seek to emulate, without hoping to equal.”8 I think Eliot had Shakespeare in view when he appealed to a long period of development as evidence of genius and character.
When Yeats died in 1939 and Eliot accepted the invitation to deliver the first annual Yeats lecture to the Friends of the Irish Academy, at the Abbey Theatre in 1940, he retained the theme of a poet’s development and remarked how Yeats “had to wait for a later maturity to find expression of early experience”. Reading the poems again in the light of a complete development, Eliot found the turning point in the 1914 volume Responsibilities, with its “violent and terrible epistle” and the great lines
Pardon that for a barren passion’s sake,
Although I have come close on forty-nine,
I have no child, I have nothing but a book,
Nothing but that to prove your blood and mine.
So he regarded Yeats, poet and dramatist, as “pre-eminently the poet of middle age”, by which he appears to have meant that in the play Purgatory and in such poems as “In Memory of Eva Gore-Booth and Con Markiewicz” and “Coole Park 1929” “one feels that the most lively and desirable emotions of youth have been preserved to receive their full and due expression in retrospect … For the interesting feelings of age are not just different feelings; they are feelings into which the feelings of youth are integrated.”9
I have quoted enough to show that Eliot changed his critical assessment of Yeats, probably in 1934, and that his sense, up to that point, of Yeats’s achievement was irregular and erratic. The impersonal animosity of the review of The Cutting of an Agate – for it amounts to that – can be explained, but only in part, by Eliot’s need to put a considerable distance between himself and Yeats, each of whom could be regarded as a Symbolist, however differently they shared in French Symbolism as Arthur Symons expounded it in The Symbolist Movement in Literature. It is my understanding that Symons led Yeats through the early chapters, with Mallarmé as the main figure, and that Eliot made his own way quickly through the several chapters until he reached Laforgue, the poet he found most useful in his attempt to discover his own voice. Still, Eliot’s animosity is hard to explain. The poems in Responsibilities and the play At the Hawk’s Well were available to him for several years before he committed the asperities in his review of The Cutting of an Agate. In The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism he scolded Richards for not quite appreciating Yeats’s later work, though he himself was slow to appreciate it. Richards could only plead that he had written Science and Poetry before The Tower came out in 1928.10 The presence of Yeats, Swift, and Mallarmé in the “familiar compound ghost” of “Little Gidding” is Eliot’s final tribute to three great predecessors; if we add Dante and Shakespeare, we nearly make up the whole account.
Yeats and Eliot were not familiars; they met occasionally and agreeably, but they were not companions. Yeats and Pound make a different relation: they were friends and remained friends especially after the three winters they spent in Stone Cottage, Coleman’s Hatch, Sussex. The friendship continued over the years and found fulfilment in a shared Rapallo. One of the many differences between Eliot and Pound, in their relations to Yeats, was that Pound did not change his opinion. From the first years in London, he sought out the writers he regarded as important, but he did not haggle over their attributes. When he had decided on their quality, he rarely changed his opinion. On December 10th, 1912, three years after meeting Yeats, he wrote a letter to Poetry, Harriet Monroe’s new magazine:
The state of things here in London is, as I see it, as follows:
I find Mr. Yeats the only poet worthy of serious study. Mr. Yeats’ work is already a recognized classic and is part of the required reading in the Sorbonne. There is no need of proclaiming him to the American public … I would rather talk about poetry with Ford Madox Hueffer [not yet Ford Madox Ford] than with any man in London. Mr. Hueffer’s beliefs about the art may be best explained by saying that they are in diametric opposition to those of Mr. Yeats.
Mr. Yeats has been subjective; believes in the glamour and associations which hang near words. “Works of art beget works of art.” He has much in common with the French symbolists. Mr. Hueffer believes in an exact rendering of things. He would strip words of all “association” for the sake of getting a precise meaning. He professes to prefer prose to verse. You would find his origins in Gautier or in Flaubert. He is objective. This school tends to lapse into description. The other tends to lapse into sentiment.
Mr. Yeats’ method is, to my way of thinking, very dangerous, for although he is the greatest of living poets who use English, and though he has sung some of the moods of life immortally, his art has not broadened much in scope during the past decade. His gifts to English art are mostly negative; i.e., he has stripped English poetry of many of its faults. His “followers” have come to nothing. Neither Synge, Lady Gregory nor Colum can be called his followers, though he had much to do with bringing them forth, yet nearly every man who writes English verse seriously is in some way indebted to him.11
It is clear that Pound was on Hueffer’s side. Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose, especially the prose of Stendhal and Flaubert. The unit of perception is the visual image. Beware of glamour and associations. If mind is “the regenerative part of nature”, you should not rely on impressions that merely happen to reach your retina.12 If you do, you will find one impression displacing another: your work will not develop.
In his memoir of Gaudier-Brzeska, Pound stated the same preference without naming names:
There are two opposed ways of thinking of a man: firstly, you may think of him as that toward which perception moves, as the toy of circumstance, as the plastic substance receiving impressions; secondly, you may think of him as directing a certain fluid force against circumstance, as conceiving instead of merely reflecting and observing. One does not claim that one way is better than the other, one notes a diversity of the temperament. The two camps always exist.13
But Pound evidently thought that one way – the way of conceiving instead of merely reflecting –was better than the first: it was the basis of his aesthetic. “Imagisme is not Symbolism.”14
Over a few years, Pound came to think that whatever Yeats did in the way of Symbolism, Eliot did it better; and whatever Hueffer did in the way of Realism, Joyce did it better, at least in Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and the realistic chapters of Ulysses. Pound’s review of Responsibilities in May 1914 may be thought to point to a change of style on Yeats’s part, but it doesn’t; not quite. There is a new note, as Pound remarks, in such poems as “No Second Troy” and “The Magi”, but Yeats is still a Symbolist; although his work has become “gaunter, seeking greater hardness of detail”. It is “no longer romantically Celtic”.15 Pound seems to say that Yeats, still incorrigibly Symbolist, has recognised the force of contingent detail: the change, the new note, is evident in some of the poems in The Green Helmet and Other Poems (1910) and Responsibilities (1914). But Yeats has not changed his fundamental allegiance to Symbolism. He has not joined Pound, Gaudier-Brzeska, Wyndham Lewis, H. D., Hueffer, and Joyce in the service of what we now call Objectivism. Even in later years, when Pound wrote of his early days with Yeats, he recalled him as a convinced Symbolist.
Sometime in 1911, Yeats and Pound happened to be in Paris together, but perhaps not on the day on which Pound emerged from the Metro at La Concorde and saw beautiful faces all around him. He wrote a poem of thirty lines, but he destroyed it because he judged it work of second intensity. Six months later he wrote a poem of half that length and destroyed it too. A year later, with the Japanese hokku in mind, he wrote a poem of three lines including the title
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
Later he said of it:
I dare say it is meaningless unless one has drifted into a certain vein of thought. In a poem of this sort one is trying to record the precise instant when a thing outward and objective transforms itself, or darts into a thing inward and subjective.16
The poem, as Hugh Kenner said of it, “is energy, is effort. It does not appease itself by reproducing what is seen, but by setting some other seen thing into relation.”17 It is an instance of “juxtaposition without copula”, to use a phrase we associate with Marshall McLuhan. That is why it points toward Objectivism, an option taken up by Pound and several poets of similar disposition, including William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Louis Zukofsky, Basil Bunting, and George Oppen. Objectivism steps aside in favour of the thing seen, to begin with, even though the sense of that thing must eventually become, as Pound says, “inward and subjective”. On the same visit to Paris, as Pound recalled it in Canto 83, he saw Yeats as
Uncle William dawdling around Notre Dame
in search of whatever
paused to admire the symbol
with Notre Dame standing inside it
Whereas in St Etienne
Or why not Dei Miracoli:
mermaids, that carving … 18
Most of the work in that passage is done by “Whereas”. Yeats is merely receiving impressions. Notre Dame is not seen by an act of conceiving, a flow of energy directed upon it. Yeats’s mind is “in search of whatever”, of nothing in particular. Whereas Pietro Lombardo’s carved mermaids on Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Venice are there only to be seen: the mind of the one who looks at them is concentrated on their detail, it does not wait for a symbolic halo to surround them. It is the difference between modelling and carving, in Adrian Stokes’s terms. The passage I’ve quoted from Canto 83 gave credence to a common view of Yeats – Donald Davie expressed it well in his first book on Pound – as a poet who never looked hard at anything; that he divined the emblem more ardently than the swan that produced it: “Another emblem there!” In Symbolism, you could nearly keep your eyes closed and attend only to the echo of word and word, so little are objects in space allowed to enforce their claim on you. Paul Valéry said of the poets who succeeded the French Symbolists that “they opened again, upon the accidents of being, eyes we had closed in order to make ourselves more akin to its substance”19.When Pound noted that Yeats was susceptible to the associations that hang near words, he pointed to the Symbolist’s interest in effects purely linguistic, not derived from nature or verifiable by appeal to that value: they are linguistic through and through. In his earliest years as a poet, Pound was himself susceptible to those effects, but he worked free of them and turned for guidance to the poet Gautier and his insistence upon the detail of apprehension. Pound became a Luminist even before he called his allegiances Imagism or Vorticism.
Pound’s references to Yeats are genial nonetheless. He never forgot the friendship that developed between them in their winters at Stone Cottage, where Yeats had him read scholarly works about witches and demonology as well as Doughty’s The Dawn in Britain. Late in Canto 98 Pound scolds Yeats, Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis for having “no ground beneath ’em”, by contrast with Orage, who apparently had the desired ground. Orage, like Pound, knew that the ground of a society is the system of economics which governs it – a system clarified to Pound’s satisfaction by CH Douglas. Sometimes, as in Canto 80, Pound made a little fun of Senator Yeats, but in the same Canto he agreed with “old William” that “the crumbling of a fine house / profits no one / (Celtic or otherwise)” and in Canto 77 he recalled with no sign of dissent “uncle William” murmuring “Sligo in Heaven” when “the mist finally settled down on Tigullio”, a tribute repeated in Canto 114.
Yeats’s most sustained comments on Eliot’s poetry are in his Introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936) and a BBC talk on “Modern Poetry” which he gave in the same year. On both occasions he referred to Eliot as a satirist, indeed as a mere satirist. In the Oxford Book he represented him through the four “Preludes”, “The Hippopotamus”, “Whispers of Immortality”, and “Sweeney among the Nightingales”. Eliot, he said,
has produced his great effect upon his generation because he has described men and women that get out of bed or into it from mere habit; in describing this life that has lost heart his own art seems grey, cold, dry. He is an Alexander Pope, working without apparent imagination, producing his effects by a rejection of all rhythms and metaphors used by the more popular romantics rather than by the discovery of his own, this rejection giving his work an unexaggerated plainness that has the effect of novelty.
Maintaining the reference to Pope, Yeats said that Eliot “has the rhythmical flatness of The Essay on Man – despite Miss Sitwell’s advocacy I see Pope as Blake and Keats saw him – later, in The Waste Land, amid much that is moving in symbol and imagery there is much monotony of accent” -to illustrate which, Yeats quoted these lines:
When lovely woman stoops to folly and
Paces about her room again, alone,
She smoothes her hair with automatic hand,
And puts a record on the gramophone.
“I was affected, as I am by these lines,” Yeats recalled, “when I saw for the first time a painting by Manet.” “I longed,” he said, “for the vivid colour and light of Rousseau and Courbet, I could not endure the grey middle-tint – and even to-day Manet gives me an incomplete pleasure; he had left the procession.” And as if the word “procession” reminded Yeats of another one, he continued: “Nor can I put the Eliot of these poems among those that descend from Shakespeare and the translators of the Bible”:
I think of him as satirist rather than poet. Once only does that early work speak in the great manner:
The host with someone indistinct
Converses at the door apart,
The nightingales are singing near
The Convent of the Sacred Heart,
And sang within the bloody wood
When Agamemnon cried aloud,
And let their liquid siftings fall
To stain the stiff dishonoured shroud.
There, Yeats seems to say, Eliot rose to the grand occasion of Agamemnon, as Yeats himself did in “Leda and the Swan”
But Yeats comes close to being insolent when he refers to Eliot’s religion as lacking “all strong emotion” by comparison with the religion of John Gray, Francis Thompson, and Lionel Johnson: “a New England Protestant by descent, there is little self-surrender in his personal relation to God and the soul”. Murder in the Cathedral, Yeats says, is “a powerful stage play because the actor, the monkish habit, certain repeated words, symbolize what we know, not what the author knows”. But Yeats has one complaint about the play:
Nowhere has the author explained how Becket and the King differ in aim; Becket’s people have been robbed and persecuted in his absence; like the King he demands strong government. Speaking through Becket’s mouth Eliot confronts a world growing always more terrible with a religion like that of some great statesman, a pity not less poignant because it tempers the prayer book with the results of mathematical philosophy.20
And Yeats quotes Becket’s speech beginning: “Peace. And let them be, in their exaltation.”
In the BBC talk on modern poetry, after describing Eliot as “the most revolutionary man in poetry during my lifetime, though his revolution was stylistic alone”, Yeats associated him with writers to whom “what we call the solid earth was manufactured by the human mind from unknown raw material”:
They do not think this because of Kant and Berkeley, who are an old story, but because of something that has got into the air since a famous French mathematician wrote “Space is a creation of our ancestors.” Eliot’s historical and scholarly mind seems to have added this further thought, probably from Nicholas of Cusa: reality is expressed in a series of contradictions, or is this unknowable something that supports the centre of the see-saw.
To illustrate this, Yeats quoted from “Burnt Norton” the passage that begins: “At the still point of the turning world”.21
Yeats’s feeling for Pound’s poetry was much warmer than his feeling for Eliot’s, but the more he thought of it the more he talked himself into vehemence and exasperation. He represented Pound in the Oxford Book by “The River-Merchant’s Wife: A Letter”, a passage from “Homage to Sextus Propertius”, and Canto XVII. But he begged off saying anything about the Cantos as a whole. As in the revised Vision, with twenty-seven cantos available to him, he could make nothing of them:
I have often found there brightly printed kings, queens, knaves, but have never discovered why all the suits could not be dealt out in some quite different order.22
In the introduction to the Oxford Book he said that “like other readers I discover at present merely exquisite or grotesque fragments”, but he was content to suspend judgment till the poem was complete – a fulfilment he did not live to see. Meanwhile he was irritated by Pound’s “unbridged transitions, unexplained ejaculations, that make his meaning unintelligible”23.“Ezra Pound,” Yeats said, “has made flux his theme; plot, characterization, logical discourse, seem to him abstractions unsuitable to a man of his generation”. “He hopes,” Yeats said, “to give the impression that all is living, that there are no edges, no convexities, nothing to check the flow; but can such a poem have a mathematical structure?” Pound told Yeats that the Cantos would eventually number one hundred, but not that the structure of the poem would be mathematical. Yeats saw flux everywhere in the cantos, but he did not see – what Kenner saw – that “Pound’s work, say from Lustra to the last Cantos, is the longest working-out in any art of premises like those of cubism”.24 Indeed, one wonders how much of Pound’s poetry Yeats kept up with and liked. It appears that whenever he thought of the poetry, he let one poem stand for the rest, and quoted it – “The Return” – without comment both in the introduction to the Oxford Book and the revised Vision. The poem gratified Yeats, we can infer, because of its theme, the return of the pagan gods. Pater wrote two stories – “Apollo in Picardy” and “Denys L’Auxerrois” – in which a god of the old dispensation survives and comes into the modern world still as a force of nature, to destroy or be destroyed. Pound’s poem, which Yeats evidently liked even though he never understood vers libre, conducts the reader’s mind through syntactic changes, variations of rhythm and phrase, and changes of grammatical tense which represent the gods as they were and as they, waveringly, are:
See, they return; ah, see the tentative
Movements, and the slow feet,
The trouble in the pace and the uncertain
See, they return, one, and by one,
With fear, as half-awakened;
As if the snow should hesitate
And murmur in the wind,
and half turn back;
These were the “Wing’d-with-Awe,”
Gods of the winged shoe!
With them the silver hounds,
Sniffing the trace of air!
These were the swift to harry;
These the keen-scented;
These were the souls of blood.
Slow on the leash,
pallid the leash-men!25
One of the most admirable qualities of the men of 1922 – to call them that for short – was their readiness to accept strong criticism from their friends without letting it damage the friendship. Eliot acknowledged, in effect, that he had no interest in Pound’s poetry for what it said but every interest in the ways it discovered of saying it. Pound had nothing good to say about Eliot’s later poetry. In Time and Western Man Wyndham Lewis attacked a quality of modern style, with Joyce as a chief exemplar. Pound tried to show Yeats the error of his diction, but his failure made no difference to their friendship. He admired Joyce’s realism but regarded Finnegans Wake as an elaborate mistake. Yeats referred to Pound as a man “whose art is the opposite of mine, whose criticism commends what I most condemn, a man with whom I should quarrel more than with anyone else if we were not united by affection …”26 He had intended to put Pound into the first version of A Vision as an exemplar of Phase 23 of his lunar cycle, but thought better of it. The only reference to Pound that remained in the first version was in a remarkable paragraph of apocalyptic criticism:
I discover already the first phase – Phase 23 – of the last quarter in certain friends of mine, and in writers, poets and sculptors admired by these friends, who have a form of strong love and hate hitherto unknown in the arts.
Yeats is thinking of Wyndham Lewis and Brancusi and of other artists who are “masters of a geometrical pattern or rhythm which seems to impose itself wholly from beyond the mind”, the artist “standing outside himself”:
I find at this 23rd Phase which is it is said the first where there is hatred of the abstract, where the intellect turns upon itself, Mr Ezra Pound, Mr Eliot, Mr Joyce, Signor Pirandello, who either eliminate from metaphor the poet’s phantasy and substitute a strangeness discovered by historical research or who break up the logical processes of thought by flooding them with associated ideas or words that seem to drift into the mind by chance; or who set side by side as in [Pirandello’s] Henry IV, “The Waste Land,” Ulysses, the physical primary – a lunatic among his keepers, a man fishing behind a gas works, the vulgarity of a single Dublin day prolonged through 700 pages –and the spiritual primary, delirium, the Fisher King, Ulysses’ wandering. It is as though myth and fact, united until the exhaustion of the Renaissance, have now fallen so far apart that man understands for the first time the rigidity of fact, and calls up, by that very recognition, myth –the Mask –which now but gropes its way out of the mind’s dark but will shortly pursue and terrify.27
Pound is not characterised there by his works. Richard Ellmann has elucidated the pursuit and terror by saying: “Yeats implies that in these writers myth, instead of merging with fact in a symbolic whole, has collided with it to produce a frenzied miscellany.” “This is a prelude,” Ellmann says, “to the manifestation of myth in some fearful, dehumanized form.”28 It is as if these writers forgot the lesson of Eliot’s review of Ulysses and of Yeats’s adumbration of a particular production of meaning and value. Myth has become ideology, a rough beast we cannot hope to understand or control.
I have called these three writers “presences,” mainly in deference to Yeats’s use of that word as the title of one poem and a crucial invocation in another. The poem “Presences” impels one to say that a presence is someone who doesn’t need to be named; a figure, an archetype, in this poem harlot, child, or queen. In “Among School Children” Yeats invokes, as if this poem were an ode – which it partly is
That passion, piety or affection knows,
And that all heavenly glory symbolize
The word “Presences” is capitalised, as if to honour the entities addressed, before exercising the harsher honour of doing justice to them at the end of the stanza as “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”. I interpret the presences as perfections projected by human desire – passion, piety or affection – and therefore fit to symbolise heavenly glory: what else could do so? They are bound to be “self-born mockers of man’s enterprise”, since that enterprise is necessarily imperfect by comparison with those perfections. So I follow Helen Vendler at a distance when she says that “the presences are not Divinities to be addressed in vertical aspiration; they are self-born and deceiving solaces, created by our longing for perfection in the things we love.”29 They are not, I think, solaces. “Created by our longing for perfection in the things we love”, they mock our imperfections, subject only to the consideration that the imperfections are categorical, they are in the nature of the human case. Wallace Stevens writes that “the imperfect is our paradise”, which is to say that it is as much of paradise as we can know, unless we believe in a greater paradise and find it fulfilled at length in another mode of being. The OED allows us to think of a presence also as an absence, “a divine, spiritual, or incorporeal being or influence felt or conceived as present”: it points us toward the “sovran Presence” in Paradise Lost and, in Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” “I have felt / A presence that disturbs me with the joy / Of elevated thoughts.” So it is not fanciful to think of our three poets as presences, not divinities indeed but objects of our devotion, so far as we love the literature they embody, imperfect as that, too, is. If we have to think of them as self-born mockers of man’s enterprise, we do so only in the fateful end and after we have spent most of our lives addressing them in vertical aspiration. If these poets mock man’s enterprise in the end, they practice such mockery by misunderstanding one another, by being not deaf but hard of hearing to rhythms other than their own.
1. WB Yeats, The Cutting of an Agate (New York: Macmillan, 1912) p 97. Eliot gives the last phrase as: “most eager to return to its own glory”.
2. TS Eliot, Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964) p. 252.
3. TS Eliot, “A Foreign Mind”, The Athenaeum, No 4653, July 4th, 1919, pp 552-553.
4. TS Eliot, “Ulysses, Order, and Myth”: The Dial, November 1923, reprinted in Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, edited by Frank Kermode (London: Faber and Faber, 1975) pp 177-178.
5. TS Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism: Studies in the Relation of Criticism to Poetry in England (London: Faber and Faber, 1950 reprint) p 140.
6. TS Eliot, After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1934) pp 45, 47.
7. Ibid., pp 50-51.
8. TS Eliot: “A Commentary”: The Criterion, XIV, No Lvii, July 1935, pp 610-613.
9. TS Eliot, On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1957) pp 299, 301, 303.
10. Cf Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, p 140n and IA Richards, Coleridge on Imagination (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner, 1934) p 207n
11. Ezra Pound: “Status Rerum”: Poetry, Vol 1, No 4, January 1913, pp 123, 125.
12. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971) p 164.
13. Ezra Pound: Gaudier-Brzeska: A Memoir (New York: New Directions, fourth printing, 1970) pp 89-90.
14. Ibid, p 84.
15. Ezra Pound: “The Later Yeats”: Poetry, Vol 4, May 11th, 1914, pp 64-68.
16. Ibid., p 89.
17. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971) p 186.
18. Ezra Pound, The Cantos (New York: New Directions, 197) p. 548.
19. Paul Valéry: “Ils ont réouvert aussi sur les accidents de l’être les yeux que nous avions fermés pour nous faire plus semblables à sa substance.”: “Avant-Propos à la connaissance de la déesse”, Ouevres, edited by Jean Hytier (Paris: Gallimard, 1957) Vol 1, p 1,276.
20. WB Yeats: “Introduction”, Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936) pp xxi-xxiii.
21. WB Yeats: “Modern Poetry”: Essays and Introductions (New York: Macmillan, 1961) pp 499, 503.
22. WB Yeats, A Vision (London: Macmillan, second edition 1937, corrected 1962) p 4.
23. WB Yeats, “Introduction”, Oxford Book of Modern Verse 1892-1935, pp xxiv, xxv.
24. Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971) p 142.
25. Ezra Pound: “The Return”, Poems and Translations (New York: Library of America, 2003) pp 244-245.
26. Ibid, p 3.
27. George Mills Harper and Walter Kelly Hood (editors), A Critical Edition of Yeats’s A Vision (1925) (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1978) pp 211-212.
28. Richard Ellmann, Eminent Domain: Yeats among Wilde, Joyce, Pound, Eliot, and Auden (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967) p 51.
29. Helen Vendler, Our Secret Discipline: Yeats and Lyric Form (Cambridge, Mass: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007) p 282.
This essay was originally published in the Dublin Review of Books in Summer 2009. It was also delivered as a lecture at the Yeats International Summer School in Sligo on July 28th, 2009.