Article Index

 

David Barnes.
The Venice Myth:
Culture, Literature, Politics, 1800 to the Present.
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014;

Michael O’Neill, Mark Sandy and Sarah Wootton (eds.).
Venice and the Cultural Imagination: 
‘This Strange Dream upon the Water’.
London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.

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by Richard Parker

 

venice mythDavid Barnes’s The Venice Myth: Culture, Literature, Politics, 1800 to the Present is an exemplary monograph that should be read by all Poundians. While not titled as a monograph on Pound, The Venice Myth is entirely relevant to the poet throughout, with all elements of the work touching on Pound and his writing whether through direct address to his poems, to the history of writing on and in Venice or, importantly, through the depiction of Ruskin’s Venice—an understanding of great importance for Pound, not only in explicating the importance of Venice for him, but as a key to his medievalism and, thus, his poetics, criticism and even his philosophy.

Barnes’s central project is essentially to defuse the various myths of Venice, arguing that “depictions of Venice – the canal-city ‘pleine de rêves’ – can and should be read in their material, cultural and political contexts” (3), a most useful procedure for readers of The Cantos as Venice loses its Romantic ethereality and emerges as a real, political, and economic city. Barnes systematically explores the abiding ideas that have filtered descriptions and understandings of the city, deconstructing them and explaining how they came into being and where we can find them in important approaches towards the city, building towards a thorough and persuasive deconstruction of the many layers of Pound’s Venice—a city that is at once medieval exemplum, Renaissance city-state and modern political experiment. Barnes builds on Tony Tanner’s seminal Venice Desired (1992), detailing the palimpsest of a city that has generated complex interrelated cultural histories both in Italy and in the distinctive tradition of literature about Venice in English in the works of writers including William Shakespeare, Ruskin, Robert Browning, Henry James (who is treated relatively briefly in this Barnes’s text) and many others.

Barnes addresses various periods of (predominantly) Anglophone writing, beginning with an analysis of the Romantics that is followed by a reading of Ruskin’s generation and, most originally, by an extended reading of the Fascist era. This modern history is set against the complex historiography of Venice, with the various understandings of the English and American writers that he addresses constellated with the Republic, the legenda nera (the "black legend" with which the Republic of Venice was identified during the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries, principally through the vested interests of the monarchies of Europe), the fight for Independence and the turmoil of the twentieth-century, with each historical turning point depicted with impressive clarity and concision. Crucially, Barnes shows how understandings of these events have changed in the minds of the English writer and, through a series of closely read case studies, illustrates how the literary poetic tradition has both reacted to and influenced the development of both Venice and the myth of Venice.

Barnes’s description of the manner in which Pound’s understanding of Fascism both grew out of and fed into his understanding of Venice is displayed clearly in his close-readings of Cantos 25 and 26, which, in contrast to Tanner, he reads as celebrating a Fascist Venetian revival, rather than elegiacally mourning the Ruskinian decline of the city. In relation to these Cantos Barnes charts the specifics of the Fascist reclamation of the myth of Venice—persuasively replacing the dreamy aestheticism of older readings with a very specific and contemporary political vision that reconceptualised Venice as a modern, even Futurist, imperial city. His description of this period in the life of Pound and the history of Venice is vital and revelatory.

Of the essays in Mark Sandy and Sarah Wootton’s Venice and the Cultural Imagination: ‘This Strange Dream upon the Water’ Jason Harding’s ‘The Myth of Venice in the Decline of Eliot and Pound’ approaches Poundian Venice most directly, though, as Barnes’s monograph proves, many of the other Venices approachedvenice cultural imagination here have direct and important ramifications for Pound’s vision of the city, including J.M.W. Turner’s, Charles Dickens’s, Ruskin’s, Edith Wharton’s and Henry James’s. Venice and the Cultural Imagination works, then, as a handy companion to The Venice Myth, further deepening the poet’s Venice. As a multi-author volume, it is naturally more diffuse than Barnes’s. The Venice Myth offers as thorough and methodical deconstruction of the many versions of the Venice myth as could be wished for with a rigor that might have been helpful to some of the essays included here. Barnes is not so inclined to intoxication in the mythology of Venice as some of these essay-writers.

Harding’s essay features a close reading of T.S. Eliot’s "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" in comparison with Pound’s Venices in Canto 17 and sections of The Pisan Cantos; materials which are addressed in The Venice Myth as well. For Harding, ‘[b]oth Eliot and Pound advance a mythic narrative of Venice’s moral and cultural fall into decline which serves to rebuke the perceived decadence of modern civilization’ (142), which connects Venice to the most controversial aspects of both writers (anti-Semitism in Eliot and anti-Semitism and Fascism in Pound). The physically decaying city of Venice becomes a parallel for cultural and racial decadence much like Mitteleuropa in Canto 35 or Eastern Europe in The Waste Land. Eliot visited in 1911 and incorporated elements of that visit into “Burbank,” but would not have the life-long commitment to and involvement with the city that Pound had—a factor that we can see in the respective depths of engagement in the writers’ approaches to the city.

Interesting as Harding’s piece is, Barnes approaches similar ground in greater and more persuasive detail, and with a salutary complexity in regards to the modern invention of the Venice myths which Harding sometimes lacks. Harding’s careful tracking of both poets’ writings on Venice through their personal experiences (most notably in the manner that he connects Eliot’s references in “Burbank” to the evidence of his actual visits from his travelling notebooks) is useful, though his summary of Pound’s Venice is a little hurried.