Review of James Dowthwaite. Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language: Faith with the Word. London: Routledge, 2019. 236 pages. £120. ISBN 9780367262747.

Winner of the 2019 Ezra Pound Society Book Prize.

by Ryan Johnson

In her recent biography of Cambridge polymath Frank Ramsey, Cheryl Misak leaves a provocative footnote to a passage discussing the ties between Ramsey and Bertrand Russell:

We have seen that Ramsey also got his pragmatism from C.S. Pierce. Russell, too, was influenced by Pierce. We know that in part T.S. Eliot, who was a philosophy graduate student at Harvard when Russell gave the Lowell Lectures there in 1914 and then was on the scene in Cambridge and in Bloomsbury during Ramsey’s time. It is not clear how much engagement there was between Ramsey and Eliot.[1]

While Misak chooses not to pursue this enticing thought further, the potential of such an encounter cannot fail to seize our attention. What would a meeting between arguably the foremost young poet and the foremost young mathematician and philosopher of the Anglophone world in the 1920s have looked like? What implications could it have for our understanding of Eliot, if not of Ramsey? 

James Dowthwaite’s Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language: Faith with the Word aims to explore such overlooked encounters between modernist poetry and figures from other fields. Rather than thinking of Pound in relation to the usual referents—Pound and the Troubadours, Pound and Chinese literature, Pound and fascism—we can gain by positioning Pound’s idiosyncratic thoughts on language relative to landmark twentieth-century writings on the subject. Dowthwaite’s goal is to identify Pound’s place within Western philosophy’s movement “from epistemology, from the study of how we know, to ontology, the question of being itself,” in the twentieth century. And ontology, in Dowthwaite’s estimation, was bound up in Pound’s mind with the power of language “as the tool, the medium, and ultimately the form of thought” (24).

The “theories of language” that the book treats are broad in scope. Dowthwaite goes beyond that subset of analytic philosophy we call the philosophy of language. Russell, Frege, and Wittgenstein make appearances, jostling for space alongside Derrida, Husserl, and Heidegger. Much attention goes to C.K. Ogden, Edward Sapir, and George Santayana, “theorists” whose work has not weathered the storm of later twentieth-century criticism quite as well. Dowthwaite sets out, then, not to put Pound into conversation with the greatest hits of twentieth-century philosophy of language, but to reveal how Pound’s speculations on language were often conversant with linguistic ideas that, in Pound’s time, held considerable sway. A more pedantic reader might also cavil at the unqualified occurrence of “twentieth century” in the title. Fleeting references to Derrida aside, the bulk of the theories under consideration in this book flourished before the end of World War II. While we encounter Wittgenstein relatively often, for instance, we generally meet the Wittgenstein of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. The bias towards the Tractatus feels unfortunate given Dowthwaite’s compelling reading of Pound as largely in line with the “pragmatic” philosophy of Santayana (195-196). A few words on how this pragmatism matches up with Wittgenstein’s later turn towards the philosophical approach that would spark ordinary language philosophy would, perhaps, have helped to round off the book by giving a fuller account of Pound’s relation to major trends in theories of language during his lifetime. 

Chapter 1 gives a convincing account of the centrality of philology to the development of Pound’s poetics. While Pound would grow hostile to philology, partially in reaction to anti-German propaganda during the Great War, Dowthwaite demonstrates that the six years of education grounded in philology Pound received at Hamilton and the University of Pennsylvania ensured that “a sustained engagement with dominant philological approaches to language and literature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries” inheres in Pound’s early work. In this chapter, we also get the first sense that Dowthwaite, despite the mention of Frege and Russell in the introduction, is not building towards showing how Pound’s work compares with the philosophy of language. Instead, the book displays how a mishmash of ideas, each connected by varying degrees to “language” as a concept, helped Pound craft what Dowthwaite calls “a philosophy of language” (48, my emphasis). The indefinite article is telling. We usually think of philosophy as a single endeavor towards truth. Saying that Pound’s philosophy of language is quantitatively distinct amounts to conceding that Pound was invested in a philosophical enterprise that nonetheless stands outside philosophy as such.  

The subsequent chapters bear out this presentiment. Chapter 2 compares Fenollosa’s and Pound’s notion of the ideogram with the ideas of Saussure, Husserl, and Leonard Bloomfield. Bloomfield’s inclusion is part of Dowthwaite’s agreeable endeavor to reconnect Pound to half-forgotten, but once influential figures. But the real surprise is an aside in which Dowthwaite lingers over Fenollosa’s famous analysis of 月耀如晴雪 / “Moon rays like pure snow” in The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry. “Though it is framed in Romantic terminology,” Dowthwaite writes of Fenollosa’s argument, “the contention at the root of it, that the universality of the sentence has a biological, rather than a social, cause, is not too far from contemporary assumptions in Chomskeyean Universal Grammar” (78). Even if this claim is sure to raise more than a few eyebrows, there is excitement in such bold comparisons. Showing how two different things differ is relatively simple; showing how unexpected affinities cut through difference is considerably more taxing. The value of Dowthwaite’s book lies in its courage to trace these unexpected lines of commerce. 

Dowthwaite’s discussion of the indirect connections between Sapir and Pound in Chapter 3 is illuminating. He evinces that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, according to which language affects thought, chimes with Pound’s enthusiasm for language as a marker of race, even though Sapir was motivated in his research by what we might now call anti-racist sympathies. Accordingly, I cannot help but agree with Dowthwaite that “there are undoubted connections” between Pound’s and Sapir’s “work that could have proven fruitful; in the modernist nexus, theirs is one of the more regrettable missed connections” (108). Similarly, Dowthwaite’s exposition of Pound’s correspondence and subsequent falling out with Ogden over Basic English is thorough and engaging. If Evelyn Waugh, in his preface to the 1959 edition of Brideshead Revisited, blamed “the period of soya beans and basic English” during World War II for the “gluttony” of “rhetorical ornamental language” in what would become his most famous novel, Pound seems at first not to have found Ogden’s effort at forging a universal language out of English at odds with the polyglot and recondite Cantos. (The jury is still out on the extent of Pound’s fondness for soya beans.) We discover that the enticement of Basic English for Pound was its political dimension, complimentary to Pound’s work to join linguistic and political reform to ensure “the establishment of a more harmonious world order” (169). Pound’s intractable attachment to Fenollosa and fascism, Dowthwaite tells us, ultimately scuppered the chance for long-term dialogue between the poet and Ogden.  

An ambitious book such as Dowthwaite’s is bound to have the occasional blind spot. The parts dealing with Pound and China especially suffer from a dearth of references to critical work. Chapter 2 gives an extensive reading of the impact of Nō theater on the development of Pound’s poetics. Dowthwaite contends that while “Cathay and its permutations for modernism are well known, the Noh Plays are a relatively understudied aspect of Pound’s corpus and they demand revisiting” (89). Though I wholeheartedly agree that Pound’s interest in Nō calls out for further study, I must also point out that studies on Pound and Nō have flourished in recent years. In fact, two of the Ezra Pound Society’s recent article awards went to essays concerning just this facet of Pound’s oeuvre, Andrew Houwen’s “Ezra Pound's Early Cantos and His Translation of Takasago”(2014) and Christopher Bush’s “‘I am all for the triangle’: The Geopolitical Aesthetic of Pound’s Japan” (2016). Lest I be accused of colluding with the Society to push for more citations of these essays, I will say that Dowthwaite did not need to cite Bush’s and Houwen’s works in particular—and indeed he could have mentioned the illuminating reading of Pound and Nō in Carrie J. Preston’s 2017 Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching—but the often specialist nature of this subset of Pound studies means that Dowthwaite would have armed himself better for his venture into Pound-and-East-Asia territory had he called on more support from extant criticism. The same is true of Dowthwaite’s statement that Pound and Fenollosa “radically overstate the use of radicals in Chinese writing” (137), and in his treatment of terms such as nōtan on page 74 and Canto 74’s “Ouan Jin” on page 180: there is an extensive critical debate over the significance of the second term especially, but this is not mentioned in Dowthwaite’s book.[2] Consequently, specialists may find these parts of the book undercited, while more general readers might have benefited from a slightly deeper look into the greater significance of all of this for Pound and English poetry at large. 

But these are cavils. Ezra Pound and 20th-Century Theories of Language makes a valuable contribution to Pound studies. Dowthwaite’s approach is a rich one and putting Pound into dialogue with more unexpected figures from adjacent fields could yield even greater results. How might Pound’s later translations of Confucius appear when placed next to the work of W.V.O. Quine? What critical fruits could we collect by considering Pound, long concerned with precision and, as Dowthwaite reminds us, with le mot juste, as a near contemporary of Alfred Tarski and Kurt Gödel? Is there anything to be gained by thinking of Pound’s death and consequent end of his ostensibly Confucian obsession with the rectification of names coinciding with the publication of Saul Kripke’s seminal Naming and Necessity? Each of these queries may seem extravagant if not the sign of a fit of critical madness. Yet the contribution of Dowthwaite’s book is that it implores us to think of Pound in these new ways, as a figure sharing the world as much with G.E. Moore as with T.S. Eliot. Such a method turns critical efforts from always trying to see “behind” Pound’s work to seeing what, in Pound’s own time, was to his work’s left and right. 


[1] Misak, Frank Ramsey: A Sheer Excess of Powers, Oxford: Oxford UP, 2020,  262.

[2] For a few important considerations of “Ouan Jin,” see: Christine Brooke-Rose, A ZBC of Ezra Pound, Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1971, 10; Mary Paterson Cheadle, Ezra Pound’s Confucian Translations, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997, 260; and Marjorie Perloff, Differentials: Poetry, Poetics, Pedagogy, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2004, 58. Perloff’s approach is especially illuminating: “Ouan Jin (wen ren in contemporary Chinese) is, as Yunte Huang has pointed out to me, nobody’s name, only a category. The two-character phrase means ‘literatus’ (or ‘literata,’ depending on the context). So Pound’s lines actually say, ‘but Wanjina is, shall we say, a literatus / or the man with an education. But in calling Wanjina ‘Ouan Jin’ and then adding ‘the man with an education’ (where we would expect ‘a man’), Pound, as Huang observes, ‘makes Ouan Jin sound like someone’s name, a character in Chinese history, a counterpart of Australia’s Wanjina…. What is originally a category is now made a proper name. The verbal trick is actually quite astounding.’”