The Poetics of Modernism: Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot

Modernism comprised a broad series of movements in Europe and America that came to fruition roughly between 1910 and 1930. Its major exponents and practitioners included Marcel Proust, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Luigi Pirandello, and Franz Kafka. These various modernisms were the results of many complex economic, political, scientific, and religious developments over the nineteenth century, which culminated in World War I (1914–1918). The vast devastation, psychological demoralization, and economic depression left by the war intensified the already existing reactions against bourgeois modes of thought and economic practice. Rationalism underwent renewed assaults from many directions: from philosophers such as Bergson, from the sphere of psychoanalysis, from neoclassicists such as T. E. Hulme, the New Humanists in America, and neo-Thomists such as Jacques Maritain. These reactions were often underlain by a new understanding of language, as a conventional and historical construct. The modernist writer occupied a world that was often perceived as fragmented, where the old bourgeois ideologies of rationality, science, progress, civilization, and imperialism had been somewhat discredited; where the artist was alienated from the social and political world, and where art and literature were marginalized; where populations had been subjected to processes of mass standardization; where philosophy could no longer offer visions of unity, and where language itself was perceived to be an inadequate instrument for expression and understanding.

Hence, over the last fifty years or so, we have come to appreciate more fully the complexity and heterogeneity of literary modernism, in its nature and genesis. It is no longer regarded as simply a symbolist and imagistic reaction against nineteenthcentury realism or naturalism or later versions of Romanticism. It is not so much that modernism, notwithstanding the political conservatism of many of its practitioners, turns away from the project of depicting reality; what more profoundly underlies modernistic literary forms is an awareness that the definitions of reality become increasingly complex and problematic. Modernists came to this common awareness by different paths: Yeats drew on the occult, on Irish myth and legend, as well as the Romantics and French symbolists. Proust drew on the insights of Bergson; Virginia Woolf, on Bergson, G. E. Moore, and others; Pound drew on various non-European literatures as well as French writers; T. S. Eliot, whose poetic vision was profoundly eclectic, drew on Dante, the Metaphysical poets, Laforgue, Baudelaire, and a number of philosophers.

In general, literary modernism was marked by a number of features: (1) the affirmation of a continuity, rather than a separation, between the worlds of subject and object, the self and the world. The human self is not viewed as a stable entity which simply engages with an already present external world of objects and other selves; (2) a perception of the complex roles of time, memory, and history in the mutual construction of self and world. Time is not conceived in a static model which separates past, present, and future as discrete elements in linear relation; rather, it is viewed as dynamic, with these elements influencing and changing one another. Human history is thus not already written; even the past can be altered in accordance with present human interests, motives, and viewpoints; (3) a breakdown of any linear narrative structure following the conventional Aristotelian model which prescribes beginning, middle, and end. Modernist poetry tends to be fragmented, creating its own internal “logic” of emotion, image, sound, symbol, and mood; (4) an acknowledgment of the complexity of experience: any given experience is vastly more complex than can be rendered in literal language. For example, the experience of “love” could be quite different from one person to another, yet language coercively subsumes these differing experiences under the same word and concept. Modernist poetry tends to veer away from any purported literal use of language which might presume a one-to-one correspondence between words and things; it relies far more on suggestion and allusion rather than overt statement; (5) a self-consciousness regarding the process of literary composition. This embraces both an awareness of how one’s own work relates to the literary tradition as a whole, and also an ironic stance toward the content of one’s own work; (6) finally, and most importantly, an awareness of the problematic nature of language. This indeed underlies the other elements cited above. If there is no simple correspondence between language and reality, and if these realms are mutually constituted through patterns of coherence, then a large part of the poet’s task lies in a more precise use of language which offers alternative definitions of reality. Eliot once said that the poet must “distort” language in order to create his meaning.

Of all the Western modernists, T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) has been the most pervasively influential through both his poetry and his literary criticism. He was initially influenced by the American New Humanists such as Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer, and his early ideas owed a great deal to their emphasis on tradition, classicism, and impersonality. Eliot was also indebted to later nineteenth-century French poets and particularly to Ezra Pound and the imagist movement. Pound assumed a broad range of critical roles: as poet-critic, he promoted his own work and the works of figures such as Frost, Joyce, and Eliot; he translated numerous texts from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, Greek, and Chinese; and, associating with various schools such as imagism and vorticism, he advocated a poetry which was concise, concrete, precise in expression of emotion, and appropriately informed by a sense of tradition. As a result of his suggestions, Eliot’s major poem The Waste Land was radically condensed and transformed.

Eliot took his so-called theory of “tradition” from both Babbitt and Pound, though it had political precedents in conservative theories of tradition such as that of Edmund Burke. Eliot’s theory claimed that the major works of art, both past and present, formed an “ideal order” which is continually modified by subsequent works of art. The central implication here was that contemporary writers should find common ground with that tradition even as they extended it. Eliot effectively succeeded in redefining the European literary tradition, continuing the humanists’ onslaught against the Romantics, and bringing into prominence Dante, the Metaphysical poets, and the French symbolists. Eliot also advanced an “impersonal” notion of poetry, whereby the poet expresses not a personality but a precise formulation of thought and feeling such as is lacking in “ordinary” experience. The poet, according to Eliot, employs an “objective correlative,” whereby objects and events in the external world are used to express complexes of thought and emotion.

In terms of literary history, Eliot held that a “dissociation of sensibility” had set in after the seventeenth century that entailed a disjunction of various human faculties such as reason and emotion which had previously been integrated within a unified sensibility. Eliot’s ideas bore an ambivalent relationship with the claims of the New Criticism. On the one hand, he believed that the aesthetic dimension of works of art is irreducible; on the other, he believed, with increasing insistence throughout his career, that art is irreducibly bound to its social, religious, and literary context. The ideas of Pound and Eliot have had a lasting influence but their most forceful impact occurred between the 1920s and the 1940s.

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