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Anxieties and Pleasantries in Modernist Philia between T. S. Eliot

and Ezra Pound

Adam Cotton, Queen’s University Canada



Formal, political and religious discords characterize the tensions between Eliot and Pound, but Robert Lowell’s proleptic elegy “Ezra Pound” shows that these distances are contracting concerns that yield an inseparable poetic friendship.

Yes, there is commerce between Eliot and Pound. The mellifluous melody in Eliot’s “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar,” which is set against the “Defunctive music under the sea,” is replete with odious anti-Semitism: “The Jew is underneath the lot” (5, 23). The echoing preposition “under” implies a ubiquitous aboveness. The juxtaposition of the expensive “cigar” and the culturally inexpensive “Baedeker” stresses further the speaker’s priggish and chubby perspective of the vacationing Jew. Pound does the same. But his tone is expansively terse: “WITH USURA / Wool comes not to market” (Canto XLV 24-5). Again, the preposition connotes its antonym: “WITH” is without.

There might also be continuity between Leo Frobenius and Pound’s paideuma and Eliot’s notion of a “historical sense” (Pound, Zwek or the Aim” 57; Eliot, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”). That is, there must never be a sustained, and droning solitary, lyrical voice. Concerning these hostilities, and approaches to culture, there is a consensus.    

But what of the discrepant nuances in the poetry? Pound’s persona remarks in Canto XLVI:

And if you will say that this tale teaches

a lesson, or that the Reverend Eliot

has found a more natural language you who think you will

get through hell in a hurry

That day there was a cloud over Zoagli     (1-5)

Getting through hell is the salient ordeal for both poets; however, Pound’s use of the conditional “if,” and the coordinating conjunction “or,” teases Christian hermeneutical traditions of “tale[s],” “teach[ings],” and “lesson[s].” The phrase “Reverend Eliot” is acerbic as it is cynically warm-hearted.

          In Pound’s elegy for Mussolini, and the fascist “dream,” in Canto LXXIV the impasse to paradise is confronted:

Thus Ben and la Carla a Milano

                             by the heels at Milano

That maggots shd/ eat the dead bullock

DIGONOS, ∆iyovos, but the twice crucified

                             where in history will you find it?

yet say this to the Possum a bang, not a whimper,

                 with a bang not a whimper     (4-10)

Unlike the “whimper[ing]” comedy in Eliot, the comic impulse in Pound is derailed and cast toward an “enormous tragedy”—the fractured, and battered bundle of fascism (1). Pound’s cryptic reference to the inverted cross of St. Peter suggests that “Ben” is a pharmakos figure “twice.” He is the parody of the “twice” born (Sieburth 119). Il Duce has become the dying god, but there is no hope for rejuvenation after the “bang” of his crucifixion. The inverted parroting of Eliot’s phrase is unfriendly, despite the tender nicknaming of “Possum.” But does such quarreling express, as well as confirm, intellectual communion?

       The speaker in Robert Lowell’s “Ezra Pound” refuses to “enstar” the literary blacksmith (Virgil 23). Yet, he offers to buttress the corpo lasso of the poet with extemporaneous inscriptions of dialogic communion. This poem is not an “elegy,” but it is elegiac. Here are the opening lines:

Horizontal on a deckchair in the ward

of the criminal mad…. A man without shoestrings clawing

the Social Credit broadside from your table, you saying,

“… here with a black suit and black briefcase; in the brief,

an abomination, Possums’ homage to Milton.”     (1-5)

A solemnly mournful, yet ironic, bathos characterizes the action in these shapes, sighs and signs of woe. The unwinding adjective “Horizontal” shows that Pound is no longer the erect figure we see in E. O. Hoppé’s portrait of 1920. Upon viewing the photograph, we notice that Pound’s head is upturned, and his gaze looks into the viewer—imperious, intrusive and yet luridly piteous. The pose bristles with invidious smugness. But Lowell’s Pound is supine as he no longer has the nerve to proclaim that “Artists are the antennae of the race” (Pound, ABC 73).

Here, Pound is not “out of key with his time,” as the speaker laments in Hugh Selwyn Mauberley: he is out of key with everything—full stop (1). Pound will never reach the vertical again. The enervated body of the poet “on a deckchair” reflects the contrite tone towards the end of the Cantos, where Pound’s persona says that “I have tried to write Paradise . . . Let those I love try to forgive / what I have made” (Pound, “Notes for CXVII et seq” 25, 32-33). The poet’s use of ellipses adds a fading, yet palpable weight, of fatigue and dispirit, which is at odds with the process of “normal” mourning (Freud 243). This elegiac acknowledgement is a mournful celebration, but the paean proceeds. Lowell’s use of aposiopesis mimics the bathetic fall from the promise of “Paradise” to an appeal for “forgiveness” in Pound’s fragmented Canto. The image of the “man without shoestrings” suggests that he cannot die with a “bang” of suicide, but must dissolve with a “whimper” (Eliot, Hollow Men V.31; Pound, Canto LXXIV 9). The reference to the “Social Credit broadside” (Pound often wrote his Cantos on broadsheets) humiliates the poet, whose “economics, Fascist sympathies, and anti-Semitic rhetoric [often] continue to shadow the poet’s reputation” (Perloff).

 “Possum” is an ironic commemoration within an ironic commemoration. Pound elegizes Eliot the friend, but not Eliot the icon of modernism. However, the italics of “homage” intimate criticism of Eliot’s terminal views on Milton, showing that even the dead Eliot cannot escape Pound’s red pen.

  Lowell’s speaker persists in the following five lines:

Then sprung; Rapallo, and the decade gone;

And three years later, Eliot dead, you saying,

“Who’s left alive to understand my jokes?

My old brother in the arts . . . besides, he was a smash of a

Poet.”     (Lowell 6-10)

The phrase “Then sprung” corresponds ironically to the opening of The Cantos: “And then went down,” which describes Odysseus’ descent into hell (Pound, Canto I.1). If the comparison of cultural overlayering, or “ply on ply” as Pound puts it, is taken soberly, then “sprung” is an ironic synonym for “down,” despite the verb/adverb discrepancy. Yes, Pound has “sprung” up from the “ward / of the criminal mad” to his beloved Rapallo, but his endeavor to reach “Paradise” is stymied: the cultural enterprise is over. It is odd here that Lowell does not mention his own “spells in mental hospital[s],” but the omission conveys a pervasive inclusion of modernist anxiety (Notebook 13).

Just as the two poets are linguistically intimate, so are they in the hospital together, talking, doing and making a proleptic elegy. The uncompromising adjective “gone” is charged with loss, and melancholia. The commas, and semicolons, nettle the tempo into terse and telegraphic bits of information, intensifying the pace of time registered, but not lived—time used up, yet not used. The phrase “Eliot dead” denies the towering reputation of the poet, even though Pound re-christens Eliot as “Possum,” and Lowell’s speaker does not re-enact the intimate pattern of anointment. The phrase is too confined within its commas to indicate any sort of beatification. Pound’s remark, “he was a smash of a poet,” is almost a throwaway line, but it is just as melancholic as Pound’s personal question: “Who’s left alive to understand my jokes?” Pound is rendered incommunicable.

Lowell’s poem digs up, and disseminates, the intimate exchanges between the two poets. The final lines read, “You showed me your blotched, bent hands, saying, ‘Worms. / Then I talked that nonsense about Jews on the Rome / wireless, Olga knew it was shit, and still loved me’” (10-12). The act of Pound showing his decaying hands to Lowell amounts to a piano self-elegy, and is thus another elegy within an elegy. The horrifying “Worms” claim Pound’s death before his actual demise. The echoing of the melancholic self-reproach and remorse for his Ente Italiana Audizione radio broadcasts show that Lowell refuses to scatter his literary icon upon the cosmos. Instead, the poets dine upon one another in a banquet, or Eucharist, in linguistic fellowship and friendship. Pound, Eliot, and Lowell are torn asunder, but they are paradoxically decanted into each other.



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