- Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement by C.K. Stead
Macmillan, 393 pp, £27.50, March 1986, ISBN 0 333 37457 6
- The Myth of Modernism and 20th-century Literature by Bernard Bergonzi
Harvester, 216 pp, £25.00, January 1986, ISBN 0 7108 1002 4
- The Innocent Eye: On Modern Literature and the Arts by Roger Shattuck
Faber, 362 pp, £15.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 571 12071 7
The advantages and disadvantages of modernity have long been canvassed, so that you could say the topic is ancient. Pancirolli wrote a very popular book on it in the 16th century, and it was often remarked by self-deprecating moderns that they were like dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants. The antiquity of this figure is the subject of a very learned and also very amusing book by Robert Merton; the received wisdom is that it goes at least as far back as the 12th century. So there is nothing very modern about worrying about what it means to be modern, and even if you think that being modern requires a total rejection of the past, like Tzara or Artaud, you become dependent on the past if only because you need to have it around to reject. As Paul de Man observed in his subtle essay ‘Literary History and Literary Modernity’, ‘the more radical the rejection of anything that came before, the greater the dependence on the past.’[*]
What blurs these continuities is the fact that in the natural course of things the topic takes on different shapes and tones in different eras. In the 17th century some scientists wanted to get rid not only of Aristotle but of natural languages as modes of recording natural observations: at the same time, critics were keen to purge poetry of falsities and opacities, epic machinery and ‘strong lines’. The response of Swift was to ridicule the scientists and also the pseudo-scientists whose language went to the other extreme; the response of Milton was to update the machinery and refine the rhetoric. This is what normally happens, and histories of the arts are histories of past modernities, even when the demand for the New is most strident, as, for instance, in Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Kandinsky.
However, it is now taken for granted in some circles that there was something qualitatively different about our modernity; that there was a decisive coupure around 1870 (the date varies), or that a wholly original understanding of linguistic functions simply made the past out of date; the differences between before and after are variously described (‘classic’ as against ‘modern’, for instance, or, to name names, George Eliot as against Joyce). It is probably useless to protest against the almost universal scholarly passion for periodisation: to have cardinal dates and canonical works associated with those dates is convenient, a useful fiction of which we forget the fictiveness. Another modern(ist) tendency is to explain that from where we stand – in our uniquely privileged moment – we can perceive certain truths about art that were concealed from our predecessors because they were trapped in their now obsolete epistemic myths.
This is not at all to deny that in any given situation thinking about quite other subjects may rub off on the arts. Early Modernism is in part a matter of new technology; the designers of dreadnoughts and flying machines had to do new thinking about ships and vehicles, to get away from the notion that a warship was just any old ship with guns on it, an aeroplane an automobile with wings attached. If you looked at poems and novels in the same way, you came upon a similiar notion – namely, that the design potential was far greater than anybody had realised, that literature was carrying too much weight, that the longest poem in the language would come out at about the length of The Waste Land if it was imaginatively designed. Roger Shattuck has an interesting but fragmentary piece in his book about the aesthetics of the fragment, very much to the point. You could now put poems, novels and films together on principles which had hitherto lain hidden. Their realisation called for a lot more work from the reader, so the alienation of high art from the general public, already well established, now grew greater, and continued to do so until the dons moved in and taught avant-gardism to their captive audiences.
It is the fault of the dons, I fear, that Modernism is both a period and a stylistic description. We should have learned long ago of the confusion arising from such practices: Wellek’s essay on Baroque is forty years old, and Lovejoy’s on the discrimination of Romanticisms (we use the term to mean so many things that it ends by meaning nothing) is over sixty. Perhaps some vague memory of these classic admonitions played a part in the invention of the term ‘Modernist’ – or rather its adaptation to modern conditions, for Swift used it in the Tale of a Tub, and it was a term of abuse, particularly of recalcitrant Roman Catholic theologians, right into the Twenties of the present century. But now ‘modernist’ is used of the modern works one happens to admire or regard as central or canonical. To be merely a modern author is to have chickened out of Modernism. As for the period, it is thought to have come to an end with Finnegans Wake or thereabouts; the admired experimental work that came later, and is judged to be in the same tradition, is called Post-Modernist. Like ‘Modernist’, it is what is nowadays called a ‘valorising’ description.
[*] The essay is in Blindness and Insight (1971). Yale French Studies, No 69, recently published, is a memorial volume called ‘The lesson of Paul de Man’. It contains the speeches made at his memorial service at Yale and a collection of essays by friends and disciples, but it will be valued most for a transcript of de Man’s last lecture, a brilliant comment on Benjamin’s essay ‘The Task of the Translator’, in which he often catches out Benjamin’s own translators. That they somethings give the exact opposite of Benjamin’s original is the occasion not merely for pedantic merriment but for further reflections on literature and Modernity.
Vol. 8 No. 11 · 19 June 1986
SIR: Frank Kermode’s review of my Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement (LRB, 22 May) is a parody in which I recognise the elements but not the book. The question it leaves me with is whether Kermode didn’t have time to do more than skim some of the essential chapters, or whether he was simply piqued at what I have to say about his misreading of Yeats – something which, of course, he doesn’t mention.
It is not true that there is an assumption in my book that ‘the value of Modernism is not only aesthetic but moral’; I don’t think I said that Yeats was a snob; and I certainly didn’t argue that snobbery had anything to do with his unwillingness ‘to go all the way with his young mentor Ezra Pound’. What I did say is summed up as follows:
What I have attempted to show here is that there is a certain line of development (not necessarily to be seen as ‘progress’) in modern poetry; that Yeats seeks and receives Pound’s assistance in travelling a certain distance along that path; and that having gone as far as suits him, he publicly criticises Pound for going further. I have tried to show also that though Pound does not answer these criticisms it must be clear that from his point of view answers were not lacking.
The whole book, in fact, is an exercise in adopting a point of view (see pp. 325-6) – not insisting that it is the only possible, or proper, one.
That Yeats wrote prose versions of some of his poems and then worked them up into stanzas is not (as Kermode puts it) a ‘charge’ I make against the poet. But it is a fact that one may legitimately cite to explain the deficiencies that sometimes (not always) result.
It is true I said The Waste Land can’t be ‘taught’: but to this Kermode adds, as if catching me out, ‘(though Professor Stead has been teaching it for a quarter of a century)’ – and this is not true. I once only included it as a small part of a course of mine for a period of just two years – and how Kermode should suppose he knows such facts is beyond me.
Nor did I say of The Waste Land that it is ‘an inspired poem’ – something that would be meaningless of the poem as a whole, though it may be meaningful in relation to certain parts. Indeed what Kermode says I say about ‘inspiration’ is such a crude travesty I wonder whether his failure is one of understanding or of the will.
Paraphrasing me with that ironic and nudging tone which suggests his readers will of course know better, Kermode says Eliot became ‘an undoubted Fascist and supporter of Hitler’. But I did not say that; and on the subject of Eliot’s politics I offered nothing untrue, and probably nothing new. I made distinctions between the British, French and Italian forms of what in Britain and Italy was called Fascism; and I said Eliot supported the French form, Action Française. I quoted what I believe to have been a review by Eliot in the Criterion in which he poured scorn on the idea that people in Britain should fuss about what was happening to the Jews in Germany (the year was 1936); and I said Eliot was ‘with Hitler’ in his belief that ‘any number of free-thinking Jews’ was ‘undesirable’ (the words are Eliot’s), and in his idealisation of the notion of the strong leader. Does Kermode disagree on any of these points? If not, what is he complaining about?
I did not say that Pound’s broadcasts were ‘preferable to Eliot’s editorials’. What I did try to show was that Eliot and Pound held similar, and to me totally unacceptable, political and racial views. Pound’s were more frankly exposed and he was punished for that. Eliot’s were carefully hedged around and he earned post-war honours. But it is not merely opinions that get into poems. Personality gets in as well; and I find Pound’s personality, erratic and even dangerous thought it may have been, more appealing on the whole than Eliot’s because less cautious and self-serving. That is not preference I expect everyone to share.
Nor does Kermode’s review give any impression at all of the extent to which I distinguish, and find critical means to distinguish, between successful and unsuccessful Pound. He contrives to make it all sound like the work of one more undiscriminating Poundian. He writes:
There is even something admirable in Pound’s use of disparaging racist epithets. For example, the use of ‘chink’ for Chinese in Canto 61 is ‘in its way one of the bizarre splendours of the Cantos’.
What I wrote reads as follows:
The ambiguity (or is it better described as innocent energy?) of a work extolling Chinese example in which the adjective ‘chink’ is used to denote one of Chinese blood is better registered and marvelled at than analysed. It is in its way one of the bizarre splendours of the Cantos.
Is it that Kermode can’t read the tone of a passage like that? Or that he won’t? I, after all, am the person calling attention to the contradiction and the absurdity – and in a context entirely critical of the particular Cantos under discussion.
Contrary to the impression Kermode gives, I say almost nothing about Larkin’s poetry but only discuss in passing the historical implications of a statement Larkin makes about ‘form’ and ‘content’ – and the quotation-marks Kermode objects to are there because the words are Larkin’s not mine.
A good example of the spirit in which Kermode undertook his review is his statement, ‘Stead accuses Eliot of being “an indifferent speller”,’ which is immediately followed by his triumphant revelation that I can’t spell Ashbery. I acknowledge the Ashbery error and thank him for the correction. But I did not ‘accuse’ Eliot. I simply quoted, in a footnote to an appendix, Helen Gardner’s information to me that this was the case, and her suggestion that it might explain why ‘Sesostris’ is spelled ‘Sosostris’ in The Waste Land. Being good at spelling has never seemed to me a virtue (Yeats was atrocious at it). But sometimes such a fact may help to explain something. Kermode’s review reads to me like a tantrum. I suppose I ought to be pleased to have so rocked his critical boat. I’m glad at least, when I read the part of his review that refers to books by Bernard Bergonzi and Roger Shattuck, not to have written something he found it possible to patronise.
University of Auckland, New Zealand
Vol. 8 No. 12 · 3 July 1986
SIR: Nobody enjoys an adverse notice, and Professor Stead has replied when still so cross as to be rather silly (Letters, 19 June). His suggestion that I failed to read his book with care is offensive, but the rest of what he has to say is really neither here nor there. Having thought very well of The New Poetic, I expected much of this new book, and was disappointed when it turned out to be manifestly inferior, much less useful, and oddly self-indulgent. It may tell us something about Stead that he thinks I could have disliked his book because he makes critical remarks on some pages I wrote thirty years ago.
Any report of his views which fails to give ipsissima verba is condemned as inaccurate. He says I misrepresent his remarks on the politics of Eliot and Pound, but his further explanation simply shows that I didn’t. He fusses about my saying that he has been ‘teaching’ The Waste Land for quarter of a century when I should have confined myself to saying he was offering public explanations as to how one should read it only 22 years ago. I’m puzzled that Stead, in his tantrum, should mistake my disappointment for a tantrum, and that he takes comfort in the absurd supposition that in liking the other books under review better than his I was patronising their authors. The fact, however sad, is that Shattuck’s book belongs to an entirely different class of criticism; and if Stead will compare what he says about Four Quartets now with what he said in 1964, he may be compelled to consider whether the same might be said of The New Poetic.
Vol. 8 No. 13 · 24 July 1986
SIR: Frank Kermode’s letter (Letters, 3 July) is no more a reply to mine than his review was a review of my book, Pound, Yeats, Eliot and the Modernist Movement. The first half of the book works its way through to a detailed study of the composition of The Waste Land, including the Pound-Eliot collaboration. The second half moves towards an analysis of how the Pisan Cantos works as a poem, and how it differs from other Cantos. These are what I called in my previous letter ‘central illustrative readings’, and Kermode has avoided discussion of either. On reflection, I recognise that I ought not to be surprised by that. All his writings show a man skilled in many aspects of literary criticism, but uncertain and sometimes evasive when brought up close to a poetic text – something which I think my discussion of his reading of Yeats’s Gregory Ode demonstrates.
His letter offers a small example of the characteristic I dislike in much of his writing, and which, if it can’t fairly be called dishonest, is certainly an insufficient scrupulousness in the manner of argument. He writes ‘[Stead] fusses about my saying that he has been “teaching” The Waste Land for a quarter of a century when I should have confined myself to saying he was offering public explanations as to how one should read it only 22 years ago.’ The word ‘fusses’ and the word ‘only’, and the sentence as a whole, contrive to give the impression that I am quibbling over a matter of three years out of 25. But that was not the issue at all. In his review Kermode quoted my saying that The Waste Lane can’t be taught, and added the parenthetical nudge and wink ‘(though Professor Stead has been teaching it for a quarter of a century)’. In replying, I pointed out that this was untrue – that there were only two years in which I ever included it in a course of mine – so Kermode now shifts his ground, implies that ‘teaching it’ meant having written about it, and makes it look as if the difference between us is merely whether 22 or 25 years have passed since the publication of The New Poetic. I don’t mind if readers disagree with my book – I expect that. But if can be shown anywhere to have made its points in the way Kermode is content to make his, I will be ashamed to have written it.
University of Auckland, New Zealand