Pound and the Perfect Lady

Donald Davie

  • Pound’s Artists: Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts in London, Paris and Italy by Richard Humphreys
    Tate Gallery, 176 pp, £12.95, June 1985, ISBN 0 946590 28 1
  • Ezra Pound and Dorothy Shakespear: Their Letters 1909-1914 edited by Omar Pound and A. Walton Litz
    Faber, 399 pp, £25.00, January 1985, ISBN 0 571 13480 7

Thanks to Clive Wilmer among others, an exhibition of paintings, sculptures, photographs and printed material bearing on Pound’s interests in ‘the visual arts’ was mounted for the Cambridge Poetry Festival on 14 June, and could be seen in Cambridge’s not sufficiently renowned Kettle’s Yard Gallery until 4 August; it will now be at the Tate from 11 September to 10 November. Humphrey Carpenter’s report on the exhibition for the TLS of 28 June will hardly choke the turnstiles. The show has, he said, ‘something of the air of a school reunion about it’, and with a few exceptions ‘it is the Pound business much as usual.’ No one, he thinks, who is unfamiliar with ‘Pound’s P.T. Barnumising for the visual arts’ will know what to make of it. This tone is intolerable, and augurs very ill for Carpenter’s biography of Pound, said to be in the works. No one who reads the three solid essays in what is described as the catalogue of the exhibition (though it isn’t quite that) can think that ‘Barnumising’ in any way describes Pound’s ardent response to painting and sculpture, photography and architecture, first in London 1908-1920, then in Paris 1920-1925, and thereafter in Italy. Carpenter, predictably, finds the three essayists – Richard Humphreys, John Alexander and Peter Robinson – ‘taking a rather solemn approach to the whole thing’; whereas, he assures us, Pound’s exertions on behalf of these arts partook ‘more than a little of the amiable joke’. Before it is through, Pound’s centenary year will bring on indigestion in even the most devoted Poundians. But whether his artistic life was, as a few think, exemplary, or, as rather more think, a fearsomely cautionary fable, it is at all events a matter of some solemnity, and the amused weariness of we-have-heard-it-all-before will not serve in 1985 as it did in 1920 or 1940 or even, scandalously, as late as fifteen years ago. We have not heard it all before, unless we have read, as few of us have, Harriet Zinnes’s compendium Ezra Pound and the Visual Arts, which all these essayists draw on very heavily. Amiable joking was never what Pound intended, and only a total insensitivity to his tone of voice could lead one to think otherwise.

Solemn? ‘Sedate’ is a better word for these essays. And two of them might be called even pedestrian. No harm in that: pedestrian documentation is what there is a call for – Pound himself, and his admirers emulating him, have been so sprightly for so long that they have persuaded people they, and he, cannot be in earnest. All the same, John Alexander’s piece on the Paris period would have made livelier and easier reading if he had not, like Richard Humphreys on the London years, limited himself so self-effacingly to the documentation, necessary thought that is. The problem, for instance, of Pound’s admiration for Brancusi, and of how that fits or does not fit with his other proclivities and principles, cannot for much longer be left where Alexander leaves it. On the other hand, his account of Pound’s attitude to Fernand Léger is new to me, and fascinating. Peter Robinson’s essay on Pound and Italian art is quite another matter: altogether more ambitious and probing. Out of D.S. Chambers and Michael Baxandall and some Italian scholars Robinson measures up Pound’s ideas about the right relation between artist and patron against what we know of how patronage in fact worked in the ducal fiefs of Renaissance Italy; and when he deals with the closeness of Pound’s views on this and related matters to Ruskin’s ideas (a theme common to all these essayists), Robinson dares to broach the too long forbidden topic of the poet’s antagonism – inertly received, so some would say, rather than considered – to Christian faith and Christian ethics. Ruskin’s espousal of a craftsmanly aesthetics, Robinson points out, is grounded in Christian convictions about the humility proper to a fallen creature: lacking such grounds, Pound’s holding to the craftsmanly not only seems arbitrary and unargued, it is as often presumptuous as humble. It’s Peter Robinson, too, who won’t stay content with ritually shocked head-shaking at Pound’s Fascism. When Pound in an early Canto includes among a hero’s conversational topics

And men of unusual genius,
Both of ancient times and our own,

Robinson detects ‘a severe confusion of categories and contexts’, and he asks: ‘Might we not distinguish in kind between literary promotion, such as Pound’s for Joyce, in war or peace, and advocacy such as Pound’s for Mussolini in war rather than peace?’ Well, so we might, but we might also think that ‘literary promotion’ is an inadequate description of Pound’s sustained and inventive activities on behalf of his notably non-reciprocating Irish colleague. In any case, Pound has the centuries on his side when he equates a genius in statecraft – Jefferson if not Mussolini – with a genius in an art or in speculative thought. In fact, the equation is more challenging the other way round: Pound thinks Joyce a phenomenon deserving equal attention with Mussolini – a temperate judgment that the years may be thought to have vindicated. Art is at least as important as politics, whether in peace or war, and it is Pound’s intransigent conviction of this that brings out the philistine in others besides Peter Robinson. The statesman as artist – God knows it is a dubious and dangerous idea, but to get rid of it probably involves demoting statesmen and aspiring statesmen from the privileged position that they still enjoy in public estimation.

Omar Pound, with Walton Litz of Princeton, has edited the letters that his parents exchanged through their protracted courtship, and their publishers have made of this a very pretty book. This is appropriate, for the story that the letters not so much tell as adumbrate comes through with a wistful fragrance that is very affecting if one reads slowly. Omar Pound must know the full story, but rightly I think, though rather austerely, he has left it for us to piece together. And some of the nuances are lost on us, or left hanging as possibilities. Was Frederic Manning, for instance, the Australian who would later write Her Privates We, in love with Dorothy, and wounded when she preferred Pound? We are not told. This is not to say that the letters can be left to speak for themselves. On the contrary, the two young persons communicate in a jokily affectionate private language, often about people in a not undistinguished but certainly restricted circle of acquaintances and Shakespear connections, who lived according to social codes now utterly unremembered. Accordingly, even those who have learned some of the relevant names from Pound’s biographers would be quite at sea if the editors had not marshalled, deftly and compactly and sometimes wittily, some very out-of-the-way information. Even so, the world that we have to enter – the world of the solidly professional bourgeoisie and minor gentry of pre-1914 England – is so remote from us, so exotic, that we can’t always keep our bearings. One is astonished, for instance, at how the daughter of Olivia Shakespear, no ordinary mother, was restricted, even in the arty society that she and Olivia frequented, by the still rigid conventions that wheeled her, uncomplaining but always chaperoned and often bored to tears, through a round of pointless visitings. Dorothy Shakespear, one sometimes feels, was not much less imprisoned than Elizabeth Barrett had been, and in not much less need of a poet-errant to liberate her. Neither the captive nor her would-be liberator wasted much time complaining: these were the rules of the game, and the two of them could only be patient.

Patience is not what we associate with Pound, and from time to time he seems to have kicked over the traces (at least once to be ticked off for it by Dorothy): yet we see all over again that the young Pound was well content with Edwardian England, was hopeful of it and ready to abide by its rules in everything that mattered. Of course, where Dorothy was concerned, that was his only strategy if he wanted to secure her in the end. And in fact that is one of the affecting things: the story that we read is undoubtedly a love-story. One had doubted this. Our information about the later phases of the Pound marriage is certainly imperfect. (And why should it not be? So Omar Pound might legitimately ask.) But such information as we have undoubtedly reflects more credit on Dorothy than on Ezra. One was forced to envisage the possibility that Ezra courted Dorothy, not cynically indeed, but abstractedly, impulsively, without due consideration. This correspondence, though Dorothy figures in it more prominently than Ezra, I believe puts paid to such suspicions. By 1913 Pound is confiding in his fiancée as, we must believe, he did to no one else. In their private code Yeats, who was to marry Dorothy’s cousin and best friend Georgie Hyde-Lees, figures as ‘the Eagle’. And in 1913 we have Pound writing of Yeats, who had just published The Grey Rock’, that the latter is ‘very fine, but his syntax is getting obscurer than Browning’s’, then confessing: ‘I wonder which is worse, to die in the aromatic subtlety of a disappearing cadence (à la ME) or to stodge one’s nobility into an incomprehensible narrative, à la The Eagle.’ (The allusion to Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ is one of the few that the editors pass over.) This is very astute criticism of Yeats: but more to the point is that Pound here confesses self-doubts such as he would have concealed from anyone he did not trust absolutely. As we read the correspondence we seem to see Dorothy growing out of the gushing flibbertigibbet that she was in 1909 into a person altogether more substantial. But this is almost certainly an illusion: as she becomes surer of her hold on the affections of her poet, so she becomes surer of herself, can dispense with affectations, and dares to speak with a certain authority about compositions that her lover sends to her – animadversions that the poet in turn receives quite humbly.

Although students of Pound will fasten with delighted alacrity on such passages as the one just quoted about Yeats, and on one or two similar passages (for instance, one of January 1914, where he speaks with hostility about symbols and symbolism), still this book doesn’t really belong with other Poundiana. Its place is at least equally with The Diary of an Edwardian Lady, or even, since through long months the lovers are at opposite ends of Italy, with E.M. Forster’s Room with a View. Its fragrance is real, and penetrating: but it does not release itself at the first casual opening of the pages.

And yet the fact must be faced: however much patient sympathy we bring to our reading, we close the book feeling frustrated. For Dorothy is still not in focus, and one begins to think that she never will be, even if the correspondence of the Pounds’ later years is some day published. Dorothy, one suspects, was always too much ‘the perfect lady’, and schooled too thoroughly in the pre-1914 code of proud reticence (a code which incidentally her husband also adhered to), for her to escape the role of ‘poor Dorothy’ that some recent writers have cast her in. Certainly she could not compete on anything like equal terms with Hilda Doolittle, the poet H.D. who, having mythologised her relations with Pound in a roman à clef many years ago, did it all over again just before her death in End to Torment, a supposed ‘memoir’ which people seem disposed to take literally, though in its scattiness it may well be as fictionalised as the novel had been. It does not help, I’m afraid, now when American cultural chauvinism wants to reclaim Pound, that Dorothy was an Englishwoman whereas Hilda, the childhood sweetheart from Bethlehem, Pa., was echt-American. H.D., nicknamed ‘the Hamadryad’, is the subject of much high-spirited comedy in the letters that Ezra and Dorothy exchanged, and this ought to provoke second thoughts in those who want to take Hilda’s account at face-value: H.D. may have honestly persuaded herself that she was the great (though virginal) love of Pound’s life, but it’s unlikely that Pound thought so, nor need we. Dorothy however remains, not nebulous exactly, but enigmatic. The odd anecdote – for instance, James Laughlin’s of 1965 about how she advanced his education in Rapallo by reading to him the stories of Henry James – brings her momentarily into focus, but then she disappears again behind a smokescreen of gracious good breeding. The loss is grievous. For when the Pisan detention-camp in 1946 compelled the poet to breach, though guardedly, the barrier of his reticence, he certainly wrote about the women he had loved; and if Dorothy is of that company (as she must be, surely), we need to know just where she figures, and on what terms. It is the reader of moving and extraordinary but cryptic poetry who needs to know this, not the perhaps nosey biographer.