Article Index

 

Vincent Sherry. Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence. Cambridge:
Cambridge UP, 2015.

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review by John Allaster

 

 

Vincent Sherry’s Modernism and the Reinvention of Decadence argues that the sensibility of Decadence was not simply influential in the development of what we now refer to as modernism, but is rather one of its earliest and most important constitutive elements. Thus Sherry attempts to intervene in the typical critical narrative of the formation of modernism by reading Decadence back to the failures of the French revolution and forward through the turn of the century into the modernist period. Sherry sees the phenomenon of Decadence – the sense of a late historical time and its associated apprehension of cultural and literary decay – as the bridge between the second-generation Romantics, such as De Quincey, Shelley, Wollstonecraft, and modernist writers such as Pound and Eliot, whose experience of WWI magnifies this Decadent sensibility. In tracing this legacy, Sherry also demonstrates that Decadent influence has been critically suppressed in favor of that of Symbolism and he wrestles with Arthur Symons, Edmund Wilson, and Frank Kermode to prove it. After establishing his alternate history of Decadence, Sherry turns his gaze on the literature of modernism to demonstrate its Decadent tendencies: he wrote chapters on the novelists James, Conrad, Chesterton, Lawrence, Manning, and West, an inter-chapter on Imagism, as well as one chapter each on the poetry of Pound and Eliot.

Sherry asserts that Pound’s application of Decadent thematics was one of the primary aspects of his development as a poet. He examines several poems from Pound’s earliest repertoire, which were not chosen for inclusion in the 1926 Personae: “In Tempore Senectutis,” “In Tempore Senectutis (An Anti-stave for Dowson),” and the volume A Quinzaine for This Yule, among others. These poems, Sherry argues, demonstrate a ready, albeit at times superficial interaction with the sensibilities of Decadence insofar as they express an apprehension of a late historical period and a working vocabulary of Latin. Sherry then moves on to the wartime period of Pound’s poetic development to show his engagement with the realities of war and their effect on his poetics and frame of mind by examining “Affirmations VI,” Blast, “The Coming of War: Actæon,” and a relatively unknown project called This Generation (which is housed at the Beinecke archive).

Focusing on two of Pound’s major poems of the post-war period, Sherry’s examination is at its most revealing as he reads “Homage to Sextus Propertius” and “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley” to demonstrate how Pound portrays the conditions of his historical present with the resources of literary Decadence. To focus on just one of the two poems as demonstrative of Sherry’s argument, “Homage to Sextus Propertius” reveals a parallel between Propertius’s historical circumstances and Pound’s own that intrigues Sherry. Because Pound’s experience of the “imbecility” of the British Empire echoes Propertius’s similar experience with Roman Empire (as Pound explains in a 1931 letter), Sherry argues that Propertius’s avoidance of high Augustan martial verse exhibits a Decadent sensibility in relation to his surroundings and that Pound’s own retreat into anachronistic Latinisms in his poem demonstrates a similar poetic revolt. One example of the Latinity that encroaches on the prosody and language of the poetic English comes from section VIII of the poem:

Jove, be merciful to that unfortunate woman 
Or an ornamental death will be held to your debit, 
The time is come, the air heaves in torridity,  
The dry earth pants against the canicular heat,
But this heat is not the root of the matter…

Sherry argues that the nonce-Latinism of “canicular” and the obscure English word (derived from Latin) “torridity,” are two examples of a greater pattern in the poem as a whole, and demonstrate a recovery of Latin as a language that makes contemporary English seem obsolescent.

For Pound scholars, though, the interest in Sherry’s study should not be limited to the inter-chapter on Imagism or the chapter on Pound alone; this is the kind of exciting study that demands attention from all scholars of the modernist period because of its bold attempt to reassert the formative element of Decadence in modernist literature. Sherry’s overall argument that a sense of the loss of the revolutionary power of poetry can be traced back to the failure of revolution in the Romantic period and forward again through Decadent and modernist poets, for the most part, is quite convincing; however, his inter-chapter on Imagism is less so because he fails to substantially establish his argument concerning the “repetition that fades” (a frequent refrain throughout the book) of Greek literature for the Imagists. Sherry argues that part of the condition of the poetics of Decadence is a secondariness, a temporal decay, exacerbated by the phenomenon of literature being literally written on a page, and that the initial Imagist appropriation of ancient Greek literature was symptomatic of this secondariness. This is a highly particularized reading of the foundation of Imagism, which fails to consider many of the alternate influences on the movement such as the philosophy of Henri Bergson, Chinese and Japanese poetics, as well as the Imagists’ attempt to transcend the written record of the page. Furthermore, if part of Sherry’s overall argument is the palimpsestic nature of literature and Imagism, especially with regard to the appropriation of Greek literature, there has to be a significant examination of H.D.’s contributions to Imagism, which Sherry does not provide.

Sherry’s argument regarding the Imagists’ relationship to Greek literature also feeds into a central argument of the text: the unseating of the unwarranted valuation of the pursuit of “novelty” in early modernist experimentation, which is evidenced by a reference to Michael North’s recent study  Novelty and by the fact that Pound’s “make it new” slogan was not actually articulated until 1934. For example, in his reading of the Latinisms in “Homage to Sextus Propertius,” Sherry asserts that Pound “makes it new,” but in a way that runs counter to the meaning of the phrase. Instead of really “making it new,” Pound, in a sense, “keeps it old”; however, this reading creates a false dichotomy between the sensibility of Decadence and the attitude of “making it new.” While Pound may not have articulated the slogan “make it new” until 1934, the spirit of the slogan can be found in many of his earliest works. One example can be drawn from “The Renaissance” series of essays from 1915 where Pound argues that a poet is to draw on models of poetics as primary pigments in order to create a new work of art. This metaphor acknowledges the sheer impossibility of radical novelty in a system of art and language that must be appropriated and disseminated through shared experience: to a certain extent one is always “making it new.” In that sense, the “keeping it old” of “Homage to Sextus Propertius” can be understood as both Decadent in its awareness of the British Empire’s late historical time and improvisational in its deployment of Latinate anachronisms to achieve that critique. Perhaps, Sherry is right in asserting that “make it new” was not an “ordaining precept” of modernism, but if it was not an “ordaining precept” it was certainly a common law that obtained its legitimacy through experimentation and practice from a very early point in the history of modernism. Nevertheless, the contingent sense of “making it new” and the sensibility of Decadence do not necessarily preclude each other because, as Sherry acknowledges in the title of his book, the modernists had to reinvent Decadence for themselves.