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Poetics and Orthodoxy; Poetics as Sensibility:

Tracing an Exchange between Eliot and Pound

Edward Alexander, Berkeley University



It is hard to appreciate the full import of Pound’s reply, in 1934’s “Date Line,” to Eliot’s 1928 provocation, “what does Mr. Pound believe?” (169), without seeing the shift in ground upon which Pound’s riposte hinges.  To understand Pound’s remark, “I believe the Ta Hio” (LE 86), we need to grasp the particular inflection that "believe" is given in this statement by turning to his translation of the Confucian Great Digest, and to weigh that inflection against the model of belief that Eliot frames in terms of what he calls “orthodoxy.”

Eliot’s question provides the capstone for the critique of A Draft of XXX Cantos that he builds in his 1928 review of Personae, “Isolated Superiority,” in The Dial.  The question provides an index for Eliot’s understanding of the proper function and delegation of the arts within a social order, and for the way these views inform his modeling of the normative relationships between form and content within a poem.  In short, while Eliot remarks that The Cantos are “technically… nearly flawless” (179), the philosophical scaffolding of the work is “a curious syncretism which I do not think he has ever set in order” (Erkilla 169).  So the force of Eliot’s question has to do with the status of the moral and epistemological background to The Cantos’ acknowledged technical virtuosity.  The full significance of this charge becomes clearer, however, only in light of Eliot’s account of orthodoxy as the necessary basis for culture across his prose writings, starting around the time of his conversion in 1927 and dealt with most explicitly in 1933’s After Strange Gods: A Primer of Modern Heresy.  In that work, Eliot explicitly locates Pound, along with Lawrence, Yeats and Irving Babbitt, as an exemplar of the “modern mind” he associates with these authors’ varieties of cosmopolitan liberal humanism. 

Two aspects of Eliot’s championing of orthodoxy in that work prove crucial for seeing what is at stake in his question and answer with Pound.  First, Eliot’s orthodoxy locates the religious institution in a central position within culture, and this institution is a synthesis of practical mores such as habitus and ritual with the metaphysical, epistemological and moral doctrines arrived at through the right use of reason on the part of a social group.1 Orthodoxy, “which calls for the exercise of all our conscious intelligence” (ASG 29), thus defines the doctrine that is then embodied as prescribed “tradition,” and enacted in the rituals of the church and the mores of the culture.  Second, and consequently, the divergence from orthodoxy in Eliot’s account primarily concerns the process in which culture, in the Arnoldian sense, comes to supplant the place of religion within the social order and the ways in which proponents of culture place a higher premium on affective and sensuous expression than on a coherent structure of ideas or morals advanced within the work.  These two movements are corollary: the prerogatives of the fine arts having assumed the social function formerly held by theological doctrine, as a product of collective reason’s alignment with scriptural authority, the poem’s sensuous and affective dimensions now assume a disproportionately weighted role in providing an authoritative basis for values within a culture. 

It is not surprising, then, that we get a moment like the following in Murder in the Cathedral:

Sweet and cloying through the dark air

Falls the stifling scent of despair;

The forms take shape in the dark air:

Puss-purr of leopard, footfall of padded bear. (44)

In a near-quotation of Acoetes’ description of Dionysus’ hierophanic appearance in Canto II, Eliot inverts the import of Pound’s “Sniff and pad-foot of beasts, / fur brushing my knee-skin, / Rustle of airy sheaths, / dry forms in the æther,” so that the emergence of the theos to full sensuous presence in the spoken medium of one of Pound’s more lyrically virtuosic passages is now reframed in the lamentation of the Chorus of Canterbury women as the apocalyptic sign attending God’s withdrawal from the earth, thus prefiguring the Archbishop of Canterbury’s murder.  Illustrative in its contrast is the magisterial entrance speech of Thomas Becket, both Eliot’s historical instance of orthodoxy “upheld by one man against the world” (ASG 30) and a synecdoche for the Church within the play, when he speaks of the “pattern,” beyond the immanent frame of experience, that “may subsist, for the pattern is the action / and the suffering, that the wheel may turn and still / be forever still” (22).  That pattern is at once the grammatical pattern of Thomas’ measured, parallel clauses as they frame the relation of values within action and pathos, the pattern of historical conflict defining the political schism between Henry II and the Church, and the typological pattern that will allow Thomas to assent to his assassination as an act of martyrdom fulfilling a providential will. 

“Belief” for Eliot, then, means belief in accordance with a structure or relationship of ideas to one another, so it would be easy to assume that Pound is referring to the same character of belief when he replies “I believe the Ta Hio” in “Date Line.”  Indeed, one is tempted to say that Eliot takes Pound to mean “believe” in this way, when Eliot writes of the “steamroller of Confucian rationalism” that “has flattened over the whole” (Erkilla 169) of Pound’s philosophical eclecticism in The Cantos, or of the “pneumatic philosophy and theory of corpuscular action” (ASG 42) that he focuses on in his discussion of the influence of Guido Cavalcanti on Pound’s thought in After Strange Gods.  But the essential distinction between understandings of the character of belief can be found in Pound’s comment “it seems to me desirable to establish demarcation between the known and the unknown, in at least a few specimen areas.  Until one has taken the trouble to do so I don’t see how one is to escape a certain gross clumsiness in the general Anschauung” (LE 86).  Here, Pound’s use of a term for “intuition” or “perception” most frequently associated with German Idealism both helps to elucidate and is elucidated by the “Terminology” section of his own translation of the Confucian Ta Hio.  It is crucial to see that the compound ideograms Pound (albeit often incorrectly) translates in that work serve not as subsidiary archaeological documents to be bypassed in order to arrive at the systematic exposition of ideas that follows, but are meant to be seen as the focal point for the work as a whole. 

In other words, the Confucian sensibility is thought to be directly perceptible in the graphic form of the ideographs as expressive media, i.e. as signifiers rather than signifieds, and the learning process consists in moving from the aphoristic statements that comprise the Great Digest to this direct perception.  The assumption behind this view is that “intellectual intuition,” for Kant a contradictio in adjecto only conceivable as a possible attribute of God, is not only a faculty possessed by humans but informs the Confucian tradition as a whole.  Intellectual intuition in Kant’s system is contradictory because the term by definition entails a collapse of the distinction between the sensible (to which the Kantian sense of “intuition” refers) and cognitively intelligible, the phenomenal and noumenal orders upon which Kant’s whole epistemology rests.  But for the twentieth century neo-Confucian philosopher Mou Zongsan, the affirmation of intellectual intuition as a human faculty constituted the entire basis for Chinese philosophy in its distinction from the western tradition.  Zongsan would write in Phenomenon and Noumenon, “if it is true that human beings cannot have intellectual intuition, then the whole of Chinese philosophy must collapse completely, and the thousands years of effort must be in vain.”2 Rather than seeing Confucianism, as Eliot does, as a form of rationalism, Pound’s obsession with ideogrammics as entailing a mode of intelligibility radically distinct from the predominant forms of rationality in western thought stemmed from his view that linguistic media could allow the same non- or transconceptual processes of intelligent discernment that informed the compositional structure of, say, a canzone or a Gaudier-Brzeska sculpture.

Between Eliot’s orthodoxy and Pound’s sensibility we therefore get two radically different models of the relationship between art and knowledge.  Orthodoxy requires that aesthetic composition be tempered by doctrine, as determined through a synthesis of traditional values with collective forms of rationality.  In the Poundian model, indexed in the statement “I believe the Ta Hio,” aesthetic composition could, in some sense had to, provide sufficient grounds for a culture without being delimited by rational dictates.  This difference had profound consequences for the subsequent development of both literature and literary institutions in the 20th century.  We can begin by seeing it in the distinction between the more “Eliotic” New Critical models of formalism that would shape academic thought on literature, and the movements for educational reform that one finds, for instance, in the more “Poundian” poets associated with Black Mountain College.   



1. The primary actual historical instance of such collective deliberation during Eliot’s time being the Anglican clergy’s gathering at the 1930 Lambeth Conference, discussed at some length in “Thoughts After Lambeth,” Selected Essays 1917-1932.

2. Quoted in Nicholas Bunnin, “God’s Knowledge and Ours: Kant and Mou Zongsan on Intellectual Intuition” Journal of Chinese Philosophy 40:S (2013): 47-58.