Many years ago I read an account of a discussion between Ezra Pound and an interviewer concerning his poetic career. I don’t recall where it was printed or the interviewer’s name, so I cannot give a reference, but I do know that the discussion took place during the 1920s or 30s. Something Pound said, however, has stayed with me ever since I read the exchange.
In the course of the discussion the subject of the modernist revolution in poetry came up, and Pound’s interlocutor asked the poet for some account of its history—how it got started, and how it developed, and why young poets had gone off in such fateful new directions. Pound replied (I am paraphrasing) as follows: “By 1900 or thereabouts, we were all asking ourselves this question: Where do we go from Swinburne?”
Pound was referring, of course, to Algernon Charles Swinburne, the amazingly gifted poet of the late Victorian period, author of the dazzling “Hymn to Proserpine,” “Dolores,” and many other powerful poems. I have always been a fan of Swinburne, despite his paganism and creepy sexuality. His command of language, meter, and rhyme, along with his sheer ebullient poetic genius, are second to none in Victorian English. I was turned off by the airy dismissiveness implied in Pound’s comment.
However, Pound’s answer to the interviewer struck me as a key to understanding what the hell went wrong with the entire modernist project. Despite the absolute brilliance and polished achievement of Swinburne, Pound and his fellow Young Turks felt they had to “go” somewhere, and do something different. Why was that?
I imagined myself at the interview, and interjecting this comment: “Ezra, we don’t have to go ANYWHERE! All we have to do is continue to write excellent poems! If you want to ‘go’ somewhere, just go the fuck back to Idaho and peel potatoes!”
The poetry of the late Victorians—George Meredith, Lionel Johnson, Coventry Patmore, Ernest Dowson, W.E. Henley, just to name a few—represented a profound level of achievement. This was the work of intelligent, highly educated, and culturally sophisticated men of the sort who are only rarely found now in the Anglophone world. By any criteria you care to apply, they were poets of the first rank.
Why did Pound insist that we go beyond them? Well, the first reason was pure orneriness—in Pound’s case, his boisterous, in-your-face “Ammurricanism,” and his compulsive bad-boy need to shake things up wherever he went. But there also was the factor of generational change, the impulse of younger poets to bad-mouth and ridicule the work of their immediate predecessors in the field. This is a recurring and cyclical process, but by the turn of the twentieth century it had become tragically linked with an entire range of revolutionary impulses in all of the arts, and beyond the arts in politics, religion, family relations, social thought, and cultural standards as a whole.
The great C.G. Jung also commented on this phenomenon late in his life, when an interviewer questioned him about the rise of Freudianism and other new theories of psychology. Jung asserted that the period from 1900 to 1920 was teeming with explosive and shocking new ideas, all of which were fueled by a desire to overthrow the past, to reject received opinion, to épater le bourgeois, to create a futuristic “renewal,” and that Sigmund Freud was merely one example of this general trend. Young persons were out to destroy and start anew.
The collective mania (in every single European nation) that welcomed the First World War as an invigorating “catharsis of blood” was the strongest and most damaging manifestation of this insanity. A century of general European peace initiated by the Congress of Vienna had ushered in a world of untold progress, advancement, wealth, and high civilization, unseen since the Pax Romana. The Concert of Europe had localized wars, and maintained a balance of power that blossomed in La Belle Époque, a brilliant flowering of Europe’s unquestioned supremacy and world domination. But by 1900, a demonic restlessness had set in, and the most impulsive elements of youth wanted destruction, revolution, and war—everywhere, including the arts. The modernist catastrophe in poetry was only a small side-show in this major collapse.
Where do we go from Swinburne? The question was both arrogant and uninformed. The poetry of the late Victorians might have been equalled, might have been bettered in minor respects, might have been used as models, and certainly might have been changed and developed in the course of time, as all sublunary things change and develop. Language and idioms change, as well as rhythmic preferences. But people like Pound weren’t talking about normal progression of that nature. They were talking about sundering and savage dislocations of culture, language, perception, and aesthetic norms. Pound didn’t want merely to “Make it new!” as he so fatuously urged. He wanted to raze all to the ground, as Carthage was razed. His manic command to “Simplify! Simplify!” was only coded language for a thoroughgoing trashing of the Victorian inheritance (Robert Browning excepted, of course), and the imposition of a vers libre counter-model for all future poetic composition.
In this respect, Pound was no different from those of his contemporaries who wanted radically new politics (communism or fascism); radically new sex relations (free love, feminism, and easy divorce); and radically new architecture, painting, sculpture, music, dance, philosophy, psychology, and education. Pound himself fiercely championed the strange painting and sculpture of Gaudier-Brzeska, and George Antheil’s Dadaist-Surrealist Ballet Mécanique. His modernist agenda in poetry was part of a generalized Gestalt that infected European thinking like some sort of spiritual encephalitis. We now live in the massive cultural devastation that this pandemic brought in its wake.
I no longer believe the retrospective apology of some modernists, who claim that the movement was intended to be a temporary expedient only, designed to give new writers a way out of the more restricting demands of Victorian style, approach, and diction. The modernist revolution, they argue, was supposed to be an emergency measure, not a permanent realignment of Western aesthetics. These apologists claim that no one planned for poetic modernism to become a new standard, and that its current hegemony is a sad but unforeseen historical consequence.
Bollocks, as the Brits say. The persons who pushed poetic modernism were as fanatical as Lenin in politics, as Dewey in educational theory, as Freud in psychology, as Picasso in painting, as the Bauhaus types in architecture, and as the Frankfurt School in social thought. The situation we have now is the situation that they wanted and worked for. Pound—who lived long enough to see the results of his youthful ardor—was remorseful at the end of his life. But it was far too late by then to cry over spilt milk.
Actually, I’d like to see us go back to Swinburne. We could do a helluva lot worse, poetically speaking. But then again, I’ve always been a ferocious reactionary.