Little Philadelphias

Ange Mlinko

  • The Verse Revolutionaries: Ezra Pound, H.D. and the Imagists by Helen Carr
    Cape, 982 pp, £30.00, May 2009, ISBN 978 0 224 04030 3

On 2 July 1914, violent thunderstorms heralded the publication in London of the first Vorticist magazine, Blast. Since January that year, there had been the threat of insurrection from the Ulster rebels; 937 strikes; 107 arson attacks by suffragettes (who also slashed Velásquez and Sargent paintings in the National Gallery); only four days earlier the Archduke Franz Ferdinand had been assassinated. The world was gearing up for the Great War, but Blast was evidence that a major campaign was already underway, and it advertised its confrontational style with a puce-and-black colour scheme and parallel columns of hates and loves, ‘blasted’ and ‘blessed’. The bombastic birth of Vorticism occurs more than 600 pages into Helen Carr’s Verse Revolutionaries, a ‘group biography’ which chiefly follows Ezra Pound and the Imagists during the period that inspired Virginia Woolf’s famous aperçu, ‘On or about December 1910, human character changed.’ But by the time we get to Vorticism, with which Pound was hoping to render Imagism – now led by his arch-enemy Amy Lowell – passé, a question irresistibly presents itself. When a poet has made it his life’s work to change a period’s style, and pursues his aim by means of confrontation and relentless promotion of his own work and that of his coterie, does style really mean much more than self-advancement?

In one way, no. With its emphasis on the men and women who populated the scene in London between 1908 and 1917, Verse Revolutionaries is decidedly about the pursuit of what Pound called ‘the white stag, Fame’. He had a knack for it. As a friendless arriviste in London in 1908, he self-published a pamphlet at Christmas cannily called A Quinzaine for This Yule and then used the fact that it had sold out to convince Elkin Mathews to republish it under his respectable imprint, thus launching himself onto the public stage. He was the impresario who galvanised and drew support from the other players in this drama: the Imagists – H.D. (Hilda Doolittle), Richard Aldington, T.E. Hulme, F.S. Flint, John Gould Fletcher, Amy Lowell – as well as scores more who had a stake in the continuing vitality of literature, including Yeats, Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, Wyndham Lewis and Henri Gaudier-Brzeska. The writers, clustered in clubs or ‘gangs’, wanted to redraw the cultural map. The Victorians were moribund, their prosody stalled at the level of Felicia Hemans’s ‘Casabianca’, a paean to obedience that filled the modernists with revulsion:

The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but him had fled;
The flame that lit the battle’s wreck
Shone round him o’er the dead.

So there were principles at stake. And the writers – most of them astoundingly young – had, well, a blast. Carr follows her subjects from the beginning of their association until the third and final Imagist anthology in 1917 (a retrospective anthology came out in 1930, giving Carr her dénouement). Much emotional drama is purloined from the various memoirs and romans-à-clef that the original members wrote later in life. Woven into the story are the multitudes of friends, girlfriends, wives, patrons, editors, publishers, printers and artists who facilitated introductions, started magazines, donated money, fell in love, and otherwise argued, backstabbed and moved on. Aldington later wrote about those ‘magical early years in London’. H.D.’s ‘closest friends were all in one way or another linked with her Imagist years’. Pound would write that it had been the ‘happiest period’ of his life. It was a time that changed poetry for good. Imagism’s most famous poems include Pound’s ‘In a Station at the Metro’ and ‘The Return’, and H.D.’s ‘Sea Poppies’. There was also her poem ‘Oread’:

Whirl up sea –
Whirl your pointed pines,
Splash your great pines
On our rocks,
Hurl your green over us,
Cover us with your pools of fir.

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