Article Index

 

MLA 2017

  

 

TRUE STUDENTS OF AESTHETICS”:
H.D. AND POUND DEFINE BEAUTY IN “CONCRETE TERMS”

         Sara Dunton, University of New Brunswick

While H.D.’s and Pound’s early essays on aesthetics, written in the 1910s, present themselves as modern texts—fragmented and buoyant—they are indebted to the equally unconventional ruminations offered by Walter Pater throughout the eclectic essays that constitute The Renaissance, written between 1868 and 1873. Arranged in chapters named mostly for Renaissance artists—Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli—the essays are bracketed by the now infamous “Preface” and “Conclusion” that—despite being written in language that Pound deemed “florid”—enforce Pater’s thinking about the creation and appropriation of art as a streaming of experience. Stylistically, Pater offers two major innovative techniques to simulate this streaming: the synthesis of unrelated material through juxtaposition, and the sophisticated use of intertextual allusions—both of which influenced the young moderns in their formulations of Imagism, and in their thinking about the material representation of abstracted form in the 1910s and 1920s. When, for example, Pater speculates on the “effect Michelangelo gains by leaving nearly all his sculpture in a puzzling sort of incompleteness, which suggests rather than realizes actual form” (“Luca della Robbia,” The Renaissance 70), he foreshadows the works of avant-garde sculptors that Pound passionately promoted; and, when Pater contends that Michelangelo’s appreciators “wished to fathom the charm of this incompleteness” (71) he anticipates H.D.’s explorations of the fragments of ancient Greek statues and poetic works.

Most importantly for this discussion of Pater’s “schooling” of Pound and H.D. is the manner in which he presents his prescription for his students of aesthetics: the essays of The Renaissance, as Stephen Cheeke explain, are “prose ekphrases” which are central to the development of aesthetic theories and the new way of art writing in the mid-to-late nineteenth century (168). But Pater’s prose is also written in a distinctly indirect manner: Pater refers to visual artworks and their artists throughout the collection, but he forgoes vivid specific descriptions, forsakes formal analyses of the art objects themselves, all the while blurring temporal lines defining periods of art history. Moreover, he presents his content in an unconventional manner and with a proto-modern approach, as evidenced in his rumination on Michelangelo, by confronting the material relationship between an art object and its audience. Pater effectively draws attention to the practice of ekphrasis itself to raise awareness of its power as a literary mode, its potential to radicalize thinking about the production, representation and reception of art in his age.

Ekphrasis, from its earliest iteration in the oral tradition of rhetoric as the “vivid description” of artworks, has upheld its purpose through long service to writers (especially poets), and has evolved into the deceptively pared-down, late-twentieth century incarnation of “verbal representation of visual representation,” as designated by James Heffernan in 1993. As a literary mode, ekphrasis has a long history of accommodating what Heffernan calls the persistent “struggle for dominance between the image and the word” (1). This struggle is a central concern for Pater in the 1870s—and one that Pound and H.D. face in their formulations and manifestations of the 1910s: beyond the creation of art as experience is another experience—the encounter between the “aesthete” (the critic or the poet), the art object itself, and the written representation of that object to the audience. These are the three key participants in what late-twentieth-century word/image theorists come to identify as the “ekphrastic situation” (Loizeaux 5)— a situation that arises from the dynamic of this three-way interaction and is always underscored by the balancing act of subjectivity and objectivity inherent to writing about visual art.

Pater proposes that the experiencing of artworks is best transmitted through those critics who are attuned to the past, but not committed to periodization or historical classification. As James Longenbach argues, Pater’s “belief in the presence of the past—and the more demanding belief that it is only as a living presence that we know the past—lies at the core of Pater’s entire aesthetic” (34). Pater claims not only that the art object holds inherent timeless power, but also that its material presence cannot be ignored. Furthermore, those writers and critics who attempt to describe it must be of a certain ilk—must be attuned to the moment of the object’s creation as well as to its impact. His opening remarks in the “Preface” to The Renaissance suggest a somewhat ambiguous combination of subjective and objective approaches that recall Romanticism but also foreshadow Imagism:

Beauty, like all other qualities presented to human experience, is relative; and the definition of it becomes unmeaning and useless in proportion to its abstractness. To define beauty, not in the most abstract, but in the most concrete terms possible, to find, not a universal formula for it, but the formula which expresses most adequately this or that special manifestation of it, is the aim of the true students of aesthetics. (“Preface” 5)

The “concrete terms” here suggest the “direct treatment of the thing” still to come, and so, fittingly, the “true students of aesthetics” who devised that credo were also blessed with key characteristics set out by Pater in his preface, namely that they possess “a certain kind of temperament, the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects” (7), that they be “those who do not live in isolation, but breathe a common air, and catch light and heat from each other’s thoughts,” attuned to “a spirit of general elevation and enlightenment in which all alike communicate”(11).

Pound and H.D., in their early years together in Pennsylvania, from 1905 to 1908, are indeed “true students” and devoted readers of Pater, as well as Algernon Swinburne, William Morris, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti, purposefully channelling the same “spirit of general elevation” Pater evokes. They do not base their modern aestheticism solely upon Pater’s thinking any more than Pater based his only upon Leonardo da Vinci’s; but they certainly do aspire to be the “artists and philosophers and those whom the action of the world has elevated” envisioned by Pater. When their writing careers are launched in London in the 1910s, however, H.D.’s and Pound’s approaches bifurcate the Paterian stream of thinking when it comes to their engagement with artworks and their work as “aesthetic critics.” Most interestingly, in these early days, Pound and H.D. turn to sculptural works to allegorize the modern experience; as writers circulating three-dimensional objects and intent on describing both artwork and experience through words, their individual accounts of ekphrastic encounters reveal their differing approaches to concrete art objects. In Pound’s advocacy of a new modernity, he formalizes theories—Imagism and especially Vorticism— about literary techniques in visual terms using sculptors and their artworks as exemplars of new manifestations of beauty. In H.D.’s early fiction and critical prose, she too strives to reconcile the concept of beauty with the potent force of the objective, modern intellect. But while Pound looks to the sculptural works of contemporaries Henri Gaudier-Brzeska and Jacob Epstein, H.D. turns her gaze back to ancient Greek sculptures and da Vinci’s paintings.

To better understand how H.D.’s and Pound’s manifestations of the ekphrastic situation reveal their different interpretations of Pater’s thinking, it is helpful to compare two contributions from his “true students’: the first is Pound’s essay “The New Sculpture” which appeared in the February 1914 issue of The Egoist—and the second is H.D.’s far more opaque treatise from 1919, Notes on Thought and Vision. Rebecca Beasley refers to “The New Sculpture” as Pound’s “first article of art criticism…[a]lthough Pound’s published and unpublished writings had long engaged with the visual arts” (94). In it, Pound relates the experience of his recent gallery viewing of Epstein’s semi-abstract/semi-primitive sculpture, Figure in Flenite. Pound distances himself from the sculptor and his artwork in a deceptively emotionally detached manner; notably, his offhand appreciation includes a brief nod to the traditional purpose of artistic production: “It is not to be denied that Mr. Epstein has brought in a new beauty. Art is to be admired rather than explained,” Pound declares; and he then goes on to confess, “The jargon of these sculptors is beyond me. I do not know why I admire a green granite, female, apparently pregnant monster with one eye going around a square corner” (68). Here Pound at once removes himself from the authoritative position of art historian or art critic, and instead makes an indirect statement on the currency of Epstein’s art, a statement that Pound wants to be as important as an art critic’s even though he declines to claim that position or authority.

In her assessment of Pater’s parallel approach, Mary Ellis Gibson notes (in Epic Reinvented) that although “Pater’s aesthetic effect yokes claims to reality (historical recurrence) and to personal interest” it also, like Pound’s, “yokes affect and detachment” (30).  In the same vein, Carolyn Williams (in her work Transfigured World) links Pater’s method to Pound’s by citing the latter’s praise in “The New Sculpture” for all artists—particularly sculptors—as those “men who work in an unchanging world. Their work permits no argument” (68). Pater, before Pound, had synthesized Renaissance artists into what Williams calls the “Paterian type [which] expresses concrete historical identity while also expressing something beyond itself” (138).  Pound chooses his contemporaries, rather than his historical predecessors to do the same, since he is intent on innovating not emulating. For Pound, it is important that their artworks allow “no argument” because it is their modernity he is interested in promoting to his audience, more than their aesthetic qualities.  In “The New Sculpture” Pound is determined to deny “being deeply moved” by the abstracted distorted form of Epstein’s figure, to downplay its beauty, all to emphasize the experience of his encounter. Here Pound is accomplishing what Williams attributes to Pater, namely that he “characterizes’ an age by personalizing it, literally choosing a character whom he invests with representative value” (52), which is what Pound chooses to do with Epstein (and especially Gaudier-Brzeska): they are to the modernist what Michelangelo et al had been to Pater.

For H.D., however, the designation of a type and the urge to characterize an age appears to be far less important than it was to Pound in his writing about art in the 1910s. In her 1919 treatise, Notes on Thought and Vision (referred to hereafter as Notes) she is far more attuned to Pater’s syncretic approach to thinking about aesthetics through the lens of an ahistorical “art history,” than she is in promoting modernity. H.D.’s stance in Notes is read initially as “modern” because of its stream-of-consciousness prose, and its abstract, idiosyncratic metaphors, but close reading reveals how she is strongly aligned with Paterian concepts. For example, she is far more open in her alignment with Pater’s criteria for the ideal critic—criteria that include his call for “the power of being deeply moved by the presence of beautiful objects”—in this exhortation from the “Preface”:

What is important, then, is not that the critic should possess a correct abstract definition of beauty for the intellect, but a certain kind of temperament . . . He will remember always that beauty exists in many forms. To him all periods, types, schools of taste, are in themselves equal. (“Preface” 7)

H.D. puts forward both the notions of artists occupying Pound’s “unchanging world” and possessing Pater’s “certain kind of temperament,” and offers these as principle elements of Notes. In it, she proclaims:

But the world of the great creative artists is never dead. The new schools of destructive art theorists are on the wrong track. Because Leonardo and his kind are never old, never dead. Their world is never explored, hardly even entered. Because it needs an over-mind or a slight glimmering of over-mind intelligence to understand over-mind intelligence. (24)

H.D.’s spare ekphrastic references to artists and artworks throughout Notes distinguish her own temperament from Pound’s. She differs from Pound in two crucial aspects: firstly, in Notes H.D. uses da Vinci, Sappho, Phidias, Lo Fu and Euripides, as examplars—ignoring Gaudier-Brzeska, Epstein, Picasso, Braque—or, for that matter, any of her contemporaries. Secondly, although H.D., like Pound, refrains from classifying any art object, she seeks out far more than he does from an encounter with one. When Pound views Epstein’s Figure, he does so in the purest spirit of new modernity: he elides the history of the sculpted form as a human body and claims to be comfortable with its abstraction, whereas H.D. wants to feel the presence of the history in the art object and be drawn into it.  This is perhaps a primary reason for her preference for those artists not-from-her-century. This is best demonstrated when H.D. explains her reaction to the bronze statue, Charioteer of Delphi, a significant work of Classical Greek art, dating from 480 to 450 B.C.  She does not profess to have “fallen in love” with the statue of the Charioteer but she does declare that it mesmerizes her; she purposefully detaches herself from a subjective emotional connection to the sculpture but, still, she yokes herself to the experience of viewing it.

Certain words and lines of Attic choruses, [she writes] any scrap of da Vinci’s drawings, the Delphic charioteer, have a definite, hypnotic effect on me. They are straight, clear entrances, to me, to over-world consciousness. But my line of approach, my sign-posts, are not your sign-posts.  (Notes 24)

H.D. proceeds to emphasize that “the lines of a statue, worked out like the charioteer, would act on us if we had the right sort of receiving brain” (27). Like Pater, then, she privileges those critics and artists of a certain character—including herself—but, paradoxically, she also separates herself from that company by asserting her individuality.

Interestingly, in 2008, when writing about twentieth-century ekphrastic poetry, Elizabeth Bergmann Loizeaux observes that “for many moderns it’s not so much that painting and sculpture take the poet out of history, but that they take the poet into history. . . . The work of art can function as a portal and as a place of contact” (21). This certainly seems applicable to not only Pater but also to H.D. What is more, for H.D., the sensory experience of being moved by an artwork is potentially epiphanic, it must be restricted to her “line of approach.” She alludes to the continuing passage of time—which retains the beauty and sublimity of the Charioteer, but she refuses to historicize its context. Like Pound, she is fully aware of that context, and she too must modernize the experience itself, but she does so in her own way. H.D. alludes to history, Pound elides history, and Pater does both.

Critical essays from early twenty-first century writers like Loizeaux and Cheeke that deal directly with ekphrasis are remarkably well suited to reading alongside the prose writings of Pater, Pound and H.D.: the former look directly at the mode of ekphrasis as mediator of the tension between word and image, while the latter indirectly use ekphrastic allusions and fragments to dissolve the boundaries between both. Equally useful are the late twentieth-century works of seminal theorists like Heffernan (already mentioned), W.J.T. Mitchell, and Richard Stein. And while all these writers and thinkers often delve into helpful comparative analyses of Romantic, Victorian, and modernist ekphrastic poems, they refer infrequently to prose and to the modernists: Pound’s Imagist and Vorticist treatises and his many contributions to the “little magazines” of the 1910s and 1920s, are seldom addressed, and H.D.’s Notes on Thought and Vision is never mentioned. Given the breadth of literature available to theorists, this omission is understandable, but it is also odd given the intensity of the young writers’ devotion to re-fashioning the idea of the artist/critic as a modern receptor of creative forces. Much of Pound’s and H.D.’s thinking is based on the dissolution of tension between words and images, on the Paterian notion of the literary critic as “one who sees” and the modernist’s idea of the poet as one who presents images without the burden of conventional syntax and descriptive language. Regrettably, some key theorists who write about ekphrasis explore the motive for such a dissolution without ever referring to the modernists’ engagement in their prose works with the dilemma at hand.  Cheeke, however, when writing about Pater, and the storied entanglement of ekphrastic writing with aesthetic theory, offers an observation that the modernists might well have appreciated:

Subjectivism is one of those dirty words in literary criticism that it might be worth thinking about again. Are there truths (the truth of beauty for example) that can be experienced only as intensely subjective truths but which nevertheless are valid beyond the consciousness of the individual? Writing for art is stalked by the possibility of this not being the case. (169)

Likely stalked by such a possibility, in The Renaissance, Pater was particularly focused on what Gibson identifies as the “historicist dilemma of attachment and detachment” (28). By writing “for” and about art, he enforces his mission through his methodological approach, his selection of subject matter and style: he attaches himself and his aesthetic theories to concrete Renaissance artists and artworks; but, at the same, Pater detaches himself from the role of expert, as Pound does, to enforce the abstract notion that H.D. upholds, namely that the “true student” is “connected to the past by…a general consciousness” (Longenbach 33).  In their early, investigative critical ruminations, the two modernists do not write directly “about” art, but they do indeed grapple with the same dilemmas Pater faced. H.D. and Pound formulate aesthetic theories by adopting Pater’s fluid historicism, by expanding upon his empowerment of the object, and by placing themselves within “ekphrastic situations” to demonstrate their degrees of attachment and their individual temperaments.

 

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WORKS CITED

Beasley, Rebecca. Ezra Pound and the Visual Culture of Modernism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Cheeke, Stephen. Writing for Art: The Aesthetics of Ekphrasis. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2008.

Gibson, Mary Ellis. Epic Reinvented: Ezra Pound and the Victorians. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1995.

H.D. End to Torment: A Memoir of Ezra Pound. New York: New Directions, 1979.

—. Notes on Thought and Vision & The Wise Sappho. Introduction by Albert Gelpi. San Francisco: City Lights, 1982.

Heffernan, James A.W. Museum of Words: The Poetics of Ekphrasis from Homer to Ashbery. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1993.

Loizeaux, Elizabeth Bergmann. Twentieth-Century Poetry and the Visual Arts. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2008.

Longenbach, James. Modernist Poetics of History: Pound, Eliot, and the Sense of the Past. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1987.

Pater, Walter. The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. 1893. Ed. Donald L. Hill. Berkeley: U of California P, 1980. Print.

—. “Preface.” The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry. Auckland, NZ: Floating Press, 2010. ProQuest Ebrary. Web. 28 November 2016.

Pound, Ezra. “The New Sculpture.” The Egoist 1.4: 16 February 1914. Modernist Journals Project. Web. 1 May 2014.

—. “Vortex. Pound.” BLAST 1: 20 June 1914. Modernist Journals Project. Web. 1 May 2014.

Mitchell, W.J.T. Picture Theory: Essays on Verbal and Visual Representation. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1994.

Stein, Richard L. The Ritual of Interpretation: The Fine Arts as Literature in Ruskin, Rossetti, and Pater. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1975.

Williams, Carolyn. Transfigured World: Walter Pater’s Aesthetic Historicism. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1989.

 

 

Response to Sara Dunton

Susan McCabe

This formulation wonderfully sums up Dunton’s elegant thesis: “H.D alludes, Pound elides history, Pater does both.”  This essay gingerly approaches the art object as an aesthetic crystal of experience in Pater, whose struggle with the relationship between image and object he passed down to Pound and H.D. Dunton’s microscope on the details of the three figures and their reception theories, at varying removes from history, is a necessary step in understanding these complex connections across time—and space. What is most interesting is what she outlines as “— a situation that arises from the dynamic of this three-way interaction and is always underscored by the balancing act of subjectivity and objectivity inherent to writing about visual art.”  While this assertion borders on vague with respect to the very vagueness it addresses—“subjectivity and objectivity”—by echoing Pound’s Imagist credo of “direct treatment of an image, whether subjective or objective,” it appears distinctively blurred, perhaps part of the elision of history.  This “three-way” scenario includes several possible three-ways: the art-work with its own autonomy, the experience of it and the describing of it, and these three remain within the two-way conduit of object and artist/critic.  I would propose thinking more closely on what is lost by eliding another possible three-way, companioning spectator. The Charioteer H.D.  falls in love with is an echo of how H.D sees Bryher, and the entire Notes on Thoughts and Vision can be seen as inter-subjective dialogue between artwork, Bryher and H.D.; we may include Pound as imagined interlocutor here as well. I am intrigued by this exploration of Pater’s influence, an ever-expanding one, for modernists.