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Il Miglior Fabbro”: The Influence of Pound in T. S. Eliot’s Later Prose

Seda Şen Alta, Başkent University



 While more than ninety years have passed since the publication of The Waste Land, Pound’s editing of Eliot’s poem is one of the crucial moments illustrating their relationship as friends, rival poets, and critics. Pound’s editing of The Waste Land was a climactic event of Eliot’s career. Although closely linked together, their styles of writing poetry and prose differed from each other. Yet, T.S. Eliot’s prose after Pound leaves London bears traces of Pound’s earlier essays and seems to build upon his ideas. When both poets resided in London, the literary authority shifted from Pound to Eliot after the former’s association with Blast conveyed an unpleasant image of Pound in the eyes of the readers (Zwerdling 232-233). Pound began to gradually receive rejections from other periodicals; his difficulty in fitting into this literary circle led to him being replaced by Eliot (Weintraub 366). Although he took Pound's place as the impresario of English literary modernism at the time, Eliot still advocated his mentor’s ideas by either praising his work or explicating his ideas. Some of the ideas Pound conveyed in his early essays can be seen in Eliot’s later prose: the relationship between tradition and innovation, the position of foreign languages compared to English, precision of expression, the role of colloquial speech, and the function of poetry in society. To illustrate, examples will be given from Eliot’s lectures and essays collected in On Poetry and Poets (1957) and Pound’s essays collected in Literary Essays (1968), edited by Eliot.

The modernist poetics which Pound and Eliot established drew attention to the relationship between tradition and innovation. Pound’s motto, “Make it New,” emerged from the idea that a young poet must familiarize himself with earlier writers to discover which ideas are established, while expressing what has not yet been said (“A Retrospect” 10). He gave the example of a scientist first familiarizing himself with what has already been discovered, and moving on to what has not been, which suggests progress (6). Pound’s argument stressed the importance of innovation emerging out of what is missing in past tradition. A few years later, Eliot asserted in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) that readers take pleasure in seeing the contrast between the young poet and his predecessors:

We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors; we endeavor to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. (“Tradition and the Individual Talent” 48)

As he argues, innovation should not be the criterion to judge a younger poet, it is how he employs the underlying tradition that proves his value. Moreover, he employs Pound’s image of the scientist to draw an analogy between a chemical reaction and the role of the relationship between tradition and innovation in the creation of art (53). In this analogy, Eliot, unlike Pound, emphasizes tradition in an interaction with new ideas, not in negation, as Pound suggested in his earlier essays. Although his earlier essay is of a different opinion, in “The Social Function of Poetry” (1945) Eliot seemed to be integrating Pound’s ideas further into his own. Eliot stresses the importance of learning and studying former writers of the same language to discover the ways in which they have contributed to the development of the language so as to renew it: “Indeed, if an English poet is to learn how to use words in our time, he must devote close study to those who, in their own day, have made the language new” (22). This idea of innovation, which is crucial to the development of a language (and hence a culture) reminds the reader of the similar argument made by Pound, that of making it new, although the idea of innovation here  also allows the poet to preserve, extend, and improve existing forms of language.

         The relationship of foreign languages to English allowed Pound and Eliot to explore new ways of expression in verse written in English. Pound believed that by hearing a foreign language, one had the opportunity to “dissociate vocabulary from cadence” and to discover new rhythms and sound patterns, enabling the poet to see English from a new perspective (“A Retrospect” 5). Likewise, Eliot’s view of language, especially the role of a foreign one, fixated on discovering new ways of expression in English. Although they both seek to innovate in both using the English language and in its relationship to other languages, Eliot asserts that although not all words are familiar, sometimes one can grasp an immediate, vivid impression without understanding every word. Like Pound, he argues, there is more to poetry than just the meaning of the words. For Eliot, “language carries the essence of the culture that enables you to grasp part of the culture of that country and be immersed in it as a traveler” (24). In other words, both argue that foreign languages are crucial to innovation in English writing because they enable a new perspective for expression for both writer and reader. However Pound and Eliot also differ on the issue of language: Pound focuses on the musicality of other languages to innovate in English, whereas Eliot pays more attention to the culture in which that particular foreign language is created. This knowledge teaches the reader to appreciate poetry in all languages and educate himself.

Both poets emphasize the necessity of educating the reader in the appreciation of good poetry. Pound argues that a person should only be exposed to good literature; that is to say, literary works that use language par excellence. For both the reader and the aspiring poet, Pound maintained that training one to distinguish poetry that one admires or dislikes is the key to breaking away from the classical, traditional form of literary appreciation and the formation of a new “palette” for the reader (“The Renaissance” in LE 216). Pound believes that poetry has been destroyed; he criticizes societies in which mediocre writers are praised as a result of the poor level of taste in literature, resulting in the decay of poetry (218). Further, Pound argues that in order to achieve a Renaissance in any nation’s literature, society must first train itself to appreciate the literature of the past and that of other peoples, in such reading discovering how the innovators revolutionized literature (218). Likewise, Eliot believes that the reader must train himself to appreciate poetry. In terms of developing a taste for poetry, Eliot proposes reading poems from anthologies and poetry magazines while learning to distinguish between good and bad art (“What is Minor Poetry?” 42). However, Eliot’s proposition is that in the anthology, one would distinguish between good and bad literature by comparing and contrasting between writers, and as a result would develop his taste in literature. Thus Eliot’s argument also puts emphasis on the personal taste of the reader. Instead, in sorting good writers from bad, Pound categorizes writers into six groups, naming the most important group the “innovators” because they are the ones who discover a new mode of expression in language. Furthermore, Pound also emphasizes that the names to be placed in these categories and the categories themselves may change according to the reader and what is important to him. It is his emphasis on innovators which illustrates his ideal of a revolutionary change in literature (“How to Read” 23). On the other hand, Eliot builds upon Pound’s idea of innovators by stating that the “developers” should also be of importance, finding that insisting upon innovation would be “as unwholesome as an obstinate adherence to the idiom of our grandfathers,” and thus for Eliot, unlike Pound, a poet is not to be considered “good” only by his innovative style, but by developing already created forms of expression (“Music of Poetry” 35). Pound and Eliot both believe in the reader’s education: Pound is stricter in distinguishing between good and bad literature, whereas Eliot puts emphasis on a balance between them in the development of personal taste.

Another disagreement they had was about the use of colloquial language in poetry. Eliot argues that poetry cannot afford to lose contact with ordinary, everyday language and if there is such a boundary between poetic expression and colloquial speech, then it needs to be broken for poetry to develop alongside language. “Every revolution in poetry is apt to be, and sometimes to announce itself to be a return to common speech. […] The music of poetry, then, must be a music latent in the common speech of its time” (“Music of Poetry” 29, 31). Eliot thinks that the raw material for the poet is the common everyday speech he encounters in the streets (22-23). For him, poetry should have the function of uniting people because whoever reads the poems would relate to it in one way or the other through his own language (23). Likewise, Pound argues that art and life should work hand in hand, thus, poetry should be written from life, and not in the style of former poets. Thus he believes that art should be a truthful representation of human nature, and to achieve this, the most powerful device a poet has at hand is language. Although Pound argues for “simplicity and directness of utterance,” he disapproves of poetry written in colloquial language in “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris.” That is to say, he insists upon the difference between the use of everyday language and the more ‘dignified,’ “‘curial’” language that would function as a corrective means for the audience (Pound, Selected Prose 41). 

Pound maintains that success in art lies in the precision of the use of language to express an emotion as simple and directly as possible with the fewest number of words, as close to his reality as possible, but not in an imitation of everyday speech. (“The Serious Artist” 43). Similar to Pound’s idea of precision, in “What is a Classic?” (1944) is Eliot’s argument that in order for a classic style to be formed in literature, the structure of the language should be able to convey both the musicality of that language and the complexity of the culture of that country or people in the simplest and most direct manner (59). Thus, written in 1944, Eliot’s essay bears traces of Pound’s ideas on the importance of “the direct treatment of the ‘thing’ whether subjective or objective” (“A Retrospect” 3).

The function of poetry in itself is another central point of discussion between the poets. For Pound, literature in general is beneficial to the public as the literature of a society reflects and represents the state-of-mind of the people, giving them a different view of existence through the medium of literature. Thus, he argues that literature does not function solely to “educate” people but to represent groups which share similar opinions, showing them that they are not alone (“How to Read” 21). In “The Social Function of Poetry” (1945), Eliot differs from Pound, stating that one of the social functions of poetry is to communicate new experience, creating a sense of awareness of an emotion that has not yet been defined. In other words, he believes that poetry should convey “a new understanding of the familiar” (“The Social Function of Poetry” 17). The true poet makes his readers share an experience, or describes for them the experience they had, but were unable to describe, and had been up to that point, unaware of its existence (20). 

The ways in which the poets structure some of the main points of modernism are strikingly different from one another. Both poets elaborate on the relationship between tradition and innovation; both emphasize comparing and contrasting English with foreign languages; both establish the importance of precision in expression. Although the main ideas they discuss in these essays are alike, their discussions differ from each other. Pound’s earlier argument about these subjects can be traced partially in Eliot’s later work, authenticating Eliot’s idea of preserving and extending literature.


Eliot, T.S. “The Music of Poetry” On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber, 1957. 26-38. Print.

-- “The Social Function of Poetry.” On Poetry and Poets. 15-25.

-- “What is a Classic?” On Poetry and Poets. 53-71.

-- “What is Minor Poetry?” On Poetry and Poets. 39-52.

-- “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood. London: Methuen, 1960. 47-59. Print.

Pound, Ezra. “A Retrospect” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. Ed. T.S. Eliot. New York: New Directions, 1968. 3-14. Print.

-- “How to Read” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. 15-40.

-- “The Renaissance” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. 214-226.

-- “The Serious Artist” Literary Essays of Ezra Pound. 41-57.

-- “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris.” Selected Prose 1909-1965. Ed. William Cookson. London: Faber and Faber, 1978. 21-43. Print.

Weintraub, Stanley. The London Yankees: Portraits of American Writers and Artists in England 1894-1914. New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979. Print.

Zwerdling, Alex. Improvised Europeans: American Literary Expatriates and the Siege of London. New York: Basic Books, 1998. Print.