A necessary blindness: Ezra Pound and rhythm.
In considering this set of developments, Ezra Pound is an almost inevitable point of reference, since the movements and tendencies we associate with him--principally imagism and vorticism--were both closely tied to parallel developments in the visual arts, and particularly to Pound's growing interest in the work of artists such as Wyndham Lewis, Gaudier Brzeska and Jacob Epstein. What is more, the trajectory of Pound's early career, from the Pre-Raphaelite tonalities of his first collections through to the imagist poems of Lustra, seems a clear enactment of that shift from music to painting which Jakobsen finds at the origins of modernism. Pound's thinking on these matters was shaped in part by Wyndham Lewis's arguments for what he called his "philosophy of the EYE" (4) and the related "external method" of satire, and Pound's own attempt to work free of the Browningesque dramatic monologue certainly resonated with Lewis's contempt for the forms of inwardness he associated with Freud, but especially with Henri Bergson. (5) As Martin Jay observes in his monumental study of "occularcentrism" or the privileging of vision in the Western tradition, it was not until Bergson that "the rights of the body were explicitly set against the tyranny of the eye." (6) For Lewis, Bergson's turn to the body and the dark "stream" of the inner life epitomised the "empiric of sensational chaos" which Lewis saw as the distinctive feature of contemporary culture. Bergson, he said, "is indeed the arch enemy of every impulse having its seat in the apparatus of vision, and requiring a concrete world." (7) By way of contrast, the spatialising eye of the painter looked out upon an intelligible world, where the clear separation of subject from object allowed the operation of intelligence rather than mere sensation. Lewis put it like this:
Much as [Bergson] enjoys the sight of things "penetrating" and "merging" do we enjoy the opposite picture of them standing apart--the wind blowing between them and the air circulating freely in and out of them: much as he enjoys the "indistinct", the "qualitative", the misty, sensational and ecstatic, very much more do we value the distinct, the geometric, the universal, non-qualitied--the clear and the light, the unsensational ... You will prefer the world of Greek philosophy, the pagan exteriority, to the world of music....' (8)
The main elements in Lewis's critique of Bergson would also appear in Pound's poetics, especially in his emphatic commitment to the "distinct and geometric" and in his related attachment to light and clarity. Indeed, the first version of Canto I announces the visual emphasis in a quite programmatic way: "Mantegna a sterner line, and the new world about us:/ Barred lights, great flares, new form, Picasso or Lewis./ If for a year man write to paint, and not to music...." The conjunction of Mantegna, Picasso and Lewis announced Pound's preference for an art of clarity and formal precision--an art, too, of a certain austerity, purging sentimentality and substituting the 'stern' line for the more curvacious attractions of corporeal form and what he later called in The Cantos "the brown meat of Rembrandt."
Yet this emphasis on visuality yields only a partial description of the modes of The Cantos, as Lewis noticed when in Time and Western Man he criticised Pound's continued dependence on what he called "repetitive hypnotic method" and "swinburnian stage properties" (9) As I will show in the remainder of this paper, Lewis's reference to Swinburne is right on target, but of equal importance is his assumption that Pound's Swinburnian mannerism places his work irretrievably outside the modernist paradigm in so far as that must be founded on some "philosophy of the EYE." Yet both Pound and Eliot were famously ambivalent about Swinburne and it is in that ambivalence that we can discern something that significantly complicates the model of visuality which both poets emphasised in their poetic theory and which seemed absolutely antithetical to the Swinburnian mode.
As in many things, we have tended to make the modernists' account of their overcoming of decadence part of our own history of poetic developments. Indeed, who now refers to Swinburne with any purpose other than to indicate a symptomatic form of writing which it was the great achievement of modernism to undo? Yet it is important to remember that in his own time Swinburne's work was actually pivotal in the literary relations between Britain and France and in that sense laid the foundations for the continental contacts that would be so important to Pound and Eliot. It is not too much to say, in fact, that Swinburne was lionised in France and by no less a poet than Stephane Mallarme.
While it is difficult to tell whether Swinburne ever gave any close consideration to Mallarme's verse, it is clear that a deep current of appreciation lay behind the French poet's dedication of "L'Apres-midi d'un faune"to "The Master I admire from afar." (10) What was it that made Swinburne's work immediately attractive to the Symbolist imagination? Swinburne had, of course, learned from Baudelaire that poetry should eschew didacticism: "a work of imagination should [not] be coloured or discoloured by philanthropy or distorted by a purpose," he writes in a letter. (11) And he had committed himself early on to a poetics of suggestion which clearly prefigures the Mallarmean aesthetic: in his essay on Blake, for example, Swinburne proposes that "[t]he pure artist never asserts; he suggests, and therefore his meaning is totally lost upon moralists and sciolists." (12) And as Jerome McGann has noted, the famous "monotony" of Swinburne's verse is founded in a view he shares with Mallarme that the ideal poetry is "impersonal, toneless, even (in a sense) without meaning." (13) We can add to this that the two poets shared a commitment to poetic theatre, and that in Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon and Erechtheus, Mallarme discerned something already approximating to his own ideal alternative to what he called an "everyday and national theatre." (14) In his review of Erechtheus, Mallarme discerned a "sublime music" which lingered in the mind "long after its cessation," a rhythm of "pure motifs moving against a background of the most subtle and noble emotion." (15) This was, crucially, a kind of inner music, a "singing within oneself," as Mallarme put it, the presage of a theatre of which, he said, "one is a spectator only within oneself, with a book open or one's eyes closed." Elsewhere, Mallarme would call it "a theatre inherent in the mind." (16) This response to Swinburne's drama prefigures in important ways the key terms of Mallarme's much later "Crisis in Poetry," where the functions of rhythm and silence in Erectheus are given definitive formulation. There he says of the ideal book of verse that "From each theme, itself predestined, a given harmony will be born somewhere in the parts of the total poem and take its proper place within the volume; because, for every sound, there is an echo. Motifs of like pattern will move in balance from point to point." And again: "Everything will be hesitation, disposition of parts, their alterations and relationships--all this contributing to the rhythmic totality, which will be the very silence of the poem, in its blank spaces, as that silence is translated by each structural element in its own way." (17)
It is worth pausing here to think more closely about what Mallarme means by "music." The poet's aim, he says, should be "to find a way of transposing the symphony to the Book; in short to regain our rightful due. For, undeniably, the true source of Music must not be the elemental sound of brasses, strings, or wood winds, but the intellectual and written word in all its glory--Music of perfect fullness and clarity, the totality of universal relationships." (18) It is a famous passage, partly because Mallarme here makes it clear that the music of poetry has no mimetic relation to music as such (and, implicity, to the music of Wagner (19)). In fact, it is music re-conceived as writing which is the principal issue, or poetry which is read, rather than recited. (20) What is equally striking, though, is the idea of clarity which Mallarme never ceases to emphasise when he speaks of "music," and which, let us remember, he discerns pre-eminently, in the 1870s, in the work of Swinburne. The conception of poetic musicality at work here is clearly very different from the one that informs the later critiques of Swinburne by Pound and Eliot. For Pound, one can find a certain "splendour" in what he describes as the "surging and leaping dactylics" of Swinburne, but this sheer emotive force can also collapse into bathos: "the sound of Dolores," he says, "is in places like that of horses' hooves being pulled out of mud." (21) Eliot makes the same point: "'Gold', 'ruin,' 'dolorous': it is not merely the sound that [Swinburne] wants, but the vague associations that the words give him." (22) So where Mallarme discovers a moving clarity in Swinburne's verse, Pound and Eliot stress vagueness, loss of focus.
On the face of it, it is not too difficult to account for this divergence in view. In the first place, neither Pound nor Eliot has much time for Mallarme-Pound sees him as a dupe of the French cult of Poe ("an exotic introduced by Mallarme and Arthur Symons," he calls it (23)), while Eliot contrasts the obscurity of Mallarme to his own ideal of "[t]he immediacy of poetry to conversation" (this, interestingly, in an essay called "The Music of Poetry"). (24) In each case, Mallarme and Swinburne represent a similar failure of objectification; as Eliot puts it in a famous passage: "Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified. They are identified in the verse of Swinburne solely because the object has ceased to exist, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment." (25) Here we may read not only one modernist verdict on both Swinburne and Mallarme, but also the germ of what would soon become an authoritative version of that modernist "turn" from music to vision. For Pound and Eliot, Swinburne is a figure to be reckoned with precisely because it is he who so fully seems to deny the power of the "sharp visual image" which, for Eliot, should complement "verse intended to be sung;" Swinburne's emotion, he remarks, "is never particular, never in direct line of vision, never focused." (26) If "you take to pieces any verse of Swinburne," says Eliot, "you find always that the object was not there--only the word. Compare [Swinburne's]
Snowdrops that plead for pardon And pine for fright
With the daffodils that come before the swallow dares. The snowdrop of Swinburne disappears, the daffodil of Shakespeare remains." (27) Eliot refers to, but doesn't actually quote, the lines from A Winter's Tale--"... daffodils/ That come before the swallow dares, and take/ The winds of March with beauty...."--so we don't necessarily notice that the word "daffodils" acquires a certain prominence as the terminal word of a line, and is paused with a comma, but he means to suggest that the alliteration there is different from the inspissation or thickening of the Swinburne lines where triple alliteration allegedly renders the snowdrops insubstantial. Arguably, it is Swinburne's metaphorical play with pleading and pining that should be the issue here, but Eliot places his emphasis on the intensification of verbal effect at the expense of the image. In this sense, Swinburne is guilty of taking his eye off the object at the crucial moment, allowing it to evaporate in a mere froth of alliteration. It is a sort of wilful or self-indulgent blindness, in short, which the modernist project is designed at all points to correct. Yet the characteristic absoluteness of Eliot's terms doesn't acknowledge that there is a type of lyricism that operates, like Mallarme's poetic theatre, with "eyes closed," that is, we might say, premised on a moment of non-visuality. This is the kind of lyricism we might find in a poet like Rilke, whose blind people, as Jacques Derrida puts it in his book Memoirs of the Blind, "sing of the poetic condition, namely of lyricism itself insofar as it opens beyond the visible." (28) Derrida goes on to quote the first lines of Rilke's poem "Gong": "We must close our eyes and renounce our mouths, / remain mute, blind, dazzled: /Vibrating space, as it reaches us / demands from our being only the ear. (29)
Derrida is concerned in this book with the art of drawing, an art which commonsense tells us is generally mimetic. But what actually happens in the act of drawing? "... it is as if," says Derrida, "just as I was about to draw, I no longer saw the thing;" and "how can one claim to look at both a model and the lines [traits], that one jealously dedicates with one's hand to the thing itself. Doesn't one have to be blind to one or the other? Doesn't one always have to be content with the memory of the other?" (30) As the eye moves from object to figured space, it is memory which suddenly comes into play. "What happens when one writes without seeing?" asks Derrida--his answer is that the groping hand finds itself "trusting in the memory of signs and supplementing sight." (31) To write without seeing--isn't this precisely the modernist charge against Swinburne and Mallarme? If so, this "memory of signs" which makes the act of construction possible is perhaps nothing less than that "musicality" of which I spoke earlier, an inner music of echo and silence, of "strophe and antistrophe," as Mallarme finds it in Swinburne's Erechtheus. (32)
We have to confront here the exceedingly awkward question of meter. It's awkward for a variety of reasons, but most obviously, perhaps, because it sets the conditions for what is for us now an almost forgotten discipline of reading. When prosodist George Saintsbury tells me of "the rigid economy of means" in Swinburne's poem "Stage Love," with, he says, its "plain trochaic trimeter catalectic" I have to confess to being more puzzled than enlightened. (33) But it is not just that the terminology seems abstract and mechanical; for in contrast to our current conceptions of Swinburne's verse, with its "thick" phonetics and over-alliteration--something Swinburne parodied in himself in a poem called "Nephelidia" ("From the depth of the dreamy decline of the dawn/through a notable nimbus of nebulous noonshine,/Pallid and pink as the palm of the flag-flower that/flickers with fear of the flies as they float", and so on (34)); in contrast to this kind of thing, one of the features of his poetry that Saintsbury singles out for praise is what he calls its "quality of speed." This speed, he says, "was the speed not merely of the runner but of the dancer; a motion miraculously combining the undulation and gyration, which usually require somewhat slow progression, with the utmost rapidity, yet never making slip or slur." (35) That last phrase might seem to us to overvalue "mere" technical expertise, but the point is, of course, that the meter, when perfectly executed, is a sign at once of the poet's control and of a measure which controls him. For Saintsbury, the dancer is dissolved in motion, her performance, to recall Derrida's phrase, "trusting in the memory of signs." This particular movement entails, in these terms, a necessary blindness, just as metrical form, with its its preordained feet and turns, creates (in the words of Rilke's poem) a "Vibrating space, [which] as it reaches us/demands from our being only the ear." Once again, Mallarme's words might come to mind: "To create is to conceive an object in its fleeting moment, in its absence ... We conjure up a scene of lovely, evanescent, intersecting forms." (36) And while Mallarme, in marked contrast to Swinburne, is keen to stress that "the great literary rhythms ... are being broken up and scattered in a series of distinct and almost orchestrated shiverings," (37) his notion of "musicality" coincides closely with Swinburne's sense of what the latter calls "the mystic metre" as a mnemonic and associative system. (38) Witness the kind of transposition, again recalling Derrida's account of "blindness," that Mallarme attributes to the dancing ballerina: "the ballerina," he says
is not a girl dancing; considering the juxtaposition of those group motifs, she is not a girl, but rather a metaphor which symbolizes some elemental aspect of earthly form: sword, cup, flower, etc., and she does not dance but rather, with miraculous lunges and abbreviations, with a bodily writing, she suggests things which the written work could express only in several paragraphs of dialogue or descriptive prose. (39)
Now we can see why neither Pound nor Eliot would have been much excited by a passage like this, with its late nineteenth-century decor and its semi-sacral symbolism. And we can also see why both writers, interested as they were in questions of prosody, might acknowledge Swinburne's mastery of metre while at the same time feeling that its systematising nature could only operate ultimately as an unwelcome constraint. Modernism was, after all, premised on the discovery of "free verse." At the same time, though, both were so acutely attuned to the affective capacities of meter and rhythm that their appeal to externality and the visual image-literary propaganda asid-offered at best only a partial alternative to the particular resources of a traditional prosody. To put it another way, the "blindness" of Swinburne's work was not only to some degree an inevitable condition of lyricism, it was also a necessary and desirable one. What's striking, though, is their anxiety about the sheer power of meter. Eliot, for example, recalls that "I took the usual adolescent course with Byron, Shelley, Keats, Rossetti, [and] Swinburne ... At this period, the poem, or the poetry of a single poet, invades the youthful consciousness and assumes complete possession for a time. We do not really see it as something with an existence outside ourselves...." (40) The idea of a kind of "possession" by poetry-something Eliot associates elsewhere with his early reading of Shelley (41) ... leads to an undesirable introversion, by this account. Rather similarly, but more positively, Pound in his early poem "Salve O Pontifex!" (which is dedicated to Swinburne) imagines himself and other poets "Lulled with the wine of thy music ... leaving thee sentinel/O'er all the mysteries." (42)
The poet grows out of Swinburne, then, but can he afford to unlearn the lessons of meter? The answer, of course, is "no," and it's not that either Pound or Eliot would have dissented from that conclusion, but rather that their attempts to negotiate a way out of what they saw as the cul-de-sac of a decadent aesthetic tended to obscure the extent to which their modernist emphasis on "objectivity" and the visual image continued to depend upon, to be supplemented by, a musicality which in its "pure" Swinburnian or Mallarmean forms seemed "blind" to the demands of a world of "objects." In Swinburne's case, this proposition returns us to the question of meter, and I think that what both Pound and Eliot, in their different ways, took ultimately from Swinburne was his recognition that meter and rhythm might have a kind of signifying function, or, to put it in more clearly Mallarmean terms, that poetic musicality might be a kind of writing. This, then, would be a music not of sounds to be read aloud, but a music released in the act of a silent reading. It is a perception which, for the French Symbolists, originated in Baudelaire's response to the music of Wagner--as Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe puts it, "might Baudelaire have tried to imagine, beyond Wagner's most manifest intentions, something like the rhythmic essence of music? Might the recurrent melody, in Wagner's 'mnemonic' system, have functioned as the letter, and might music, in signifying, have been a sort of writing?" (43) I think a similar possibility is encoded in Swinburne's contention that "There is a science of verse as surely as there is a science of mathematics: there is an art of expression by metre as certainly as there is an art of representation by painting." (44) This "science," which is based, says Swinburne, on "metre, rhythm, cadence not merely appreciable but definable and reducible to rule and measurement" yields a conception of "form" or "trace" which is somehow objective, "beyond intention and conscious control." (45) As Yopie Prins puts it in her recent study Victorian Sappho, "the automatism of Swinburne's writing can be understood as another version of rhythmic transport, the conversion of 'natural' rhythms into a metrical sublime that was implicit, all along, in his Sapphic imitations." (46) So for all Swinburne's fascinated attention to the sounds of winds and waters, the rhythms of nature are ultimately sublimated into the laws of meter, a movement which once again parallels that shift between vision and figural space which underpins Derrida's account of "blindness." The result is, in Mallarme's famous phrase, "la disparition elocutoire du poete," "the disappearance of the poet as speaker," (47) or, in Eliot's term, a certain "impersonality": "The world of Swinburne," says Eliot, "does not depend upon some other world which it simulates; it has the necessary completeness and self-sufficiency for justification and permanence. It is impersonal, and no one else could have made it." (48) Swinburne's deployment of classical metres is thus dependent on a complex and highly nuanced form of anamnesis or recollection, (49) and the poem, obeying Mallarme's later injunction that "the initiative [must be] taken by the words themselves," (50) refuses to "simulate" the objective world, offering instead a rhythmic movement which remembers the poem's own prior articulations at the same time as it recalls a classical world whose traces reside in the meters now performed and remembered. (51)
I want in the closing part of this paper to relate this idea of metre to some of Pound's work; and I choose Pound here rather than Eliot mainly because it is Pound's strenuous commitment to forms of objectification that seems most at odds with the kind of interiorisation associated with Swinburne (Eliot's Four Quartets would, however, yield some fertile cross-connections). That Pound learned from Swinburne the mnemonic and associative potential of inherited prosodic forms is clear from his early volumes, and the much-anthologised early poem "The Return" has a close relation to the famous opening chorus of Swinburne's Atalanta in Calydon ("When the hounds of spring are on winter's traces...."). (52) As I've suggested elsewhere, Pound's invocation of "Gods of the winged shoe!/With them the silver hounds/sniffing the trace of air!" connects suggestively with Swinburne's "traces". "Trace" in fact has a two-fold meaning here, implying at once the image or form held in the mind, and its "sensuous" embodiment in the moment of song (literally, of course, it suggests form pressed into matter, but also perhaps the inscription by which voice is turned into rhythmicised writing (53)). It is the impress of the metre on a foreign medium which, for Pound as for Swinburne, creates a kind of visionary space where the "dance" of the metre, "the slow feet,/The trouble in the pace and the uncertain/Wavering" is literally the unfolding movement of the poem and an articulation of a desire for the return of the classical gods. This poem is, of course, something of a special case, since the reference to Swinburne would have been immediately clear to most of Pound's contemporary readers. But the play of rhythm against meter in order to express desire and recollection also figures prominently in The Cantos, where Pound's metrical allusions are much more compressed and elliptical, in that sense sharing Mallarme's sense of the breaking up and scattering of "the great literary rhythms" at the onset of the modernist period. While meter as such remains a residual presence, notably in the visionary sections of Pound's long poem, the functions of memory and association which metrical form had allowed Swinburne are here transferred to devices of echo, reiteration, sound-patterning and cadence. I'm tempted to say that what Pound was trying to do was to re-educate a readership still acquainted with regular metrical forms so that they could perform the same affective functions as the Swinburnian reader but outside of the systematic frame of traditional prosody.
This possibility was brilliantly grasped by American poet Robert Duncan, in one of the most helpful comments I know on Pound's method (Duncan is speaking here of The Pisan Cantos, where the inter-relation of echo, progression and memory is most movingly explored, but his account also has a general application to the larger movements of the poem as a whole). Duncan suggests
That one image may recall another, finding depth in the resounding is the secret of rime and measure. The time of a poem is felt as a recognition of return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings. It resembles the time of a dream, for it is highly organized along lines of association and impulses of contrast towards the structure of the whole. The same impulse of dream or poem is to provide a ground for some form beyond what we know, for feeling "greater than reality." (54)
Duncan's reading of Pound's poem in terms of figures of anamnesis and recurrence is highly Swinburnian (he is himself in some respects a highly Swinburnian poet) and it invites us to look again at some of those passages in The Cantos which are usually read as instances of Pound's attempt to create a language of visual clarity and precision, in short to present the object. In the early Cantos especially, the emergence from the chaos of history into some kind of visionary perception is usually tied to the evocation of landscape. And while these landscapes are rooted in Pound's own experiences of particular places in Provence and Italy, there is a constant oscillation between precise notation and something which exceeds it (again I'm thinking of Derrida's remark about lyricism as a condition which "opens beyond the visible"). The manoeuvre is there at an early stage. For example, in a letter written from Sirmione in 1910, Pound remarks that "I am more or less drowned in beauty, but it isn't the lake, or the hills, or even--almost even the olive trees, but the four red leaves of a poppy that are the poetry simply because they go beyond themselves & mean Andalucia and the court yard at Cordova." (55) Here Pound seeks to avoid the seductiveness of the lake's beauty--the idea of being "drowned" in it might seem to predict the passive "floating bodies" of the lotus eaters in Canto XX--and fixes instead on an object which has the suggestive power to transport the mind elsewhere. It is as if he wants to distinguish between an actual place as something static, which might be felt to "contain" or immobilise the mind, and those features of it which in signifying something "beyond themselves" instigate that affective movement which properly characterises the imagination. And of course once we begin to speak of "movement" like this, we have vastly complicated the notion that language is being used in the service of visual perception. What is at work here is actually much closer to what we have already seen in Swinburne, because the movement which the original perception instigates is one of memory, not direct encounter, and it is a memory which is precisely, in Duncan's sense, a form of measure and "return." "Place," we might say, is here transformed into some kind of visionary space, with rhythm, as Pound puts it in a telling phrase, "cut[ting] a shape in time." (56) That "shape" designedly "opens beyond the visual," and makes one question the descriptive adequacy of both the Imagist conception of language and Eliot's declaration that "Language in a healthy state presents the object, is so close to the object that the two are identified." (57) To the contrary, we might say that in practice, for Pound, as for Swinburne, a certain momentary "blindness" to the object is what actually permits a form of ecstatic perception that occurs in a dimension beyond the visual. This is how Pound puts it in a famous passage from his essay on Cavalcanti where he discovers "the radiant world where one thought cuts through another with clean edge, a world of moving energies ... [of] magnetisms that take form, that are seen, or that border the visible, the matter of Dante's paradiso, the glass under water, the form that seems a form seen in a mirror, these realities perceptible to the sense, interacting...." (58)
Pound's A Draft of XXX Cantos has a close relation to this fantasy of a "radiant world," with actual landscapes constantly overlaid by allusions to a composite, mythological landscape which reduce the specificity of particular places. The dominant effect is of things refracted through another medium-like "the glass seen under water, the form that seems a form seen in a mirror," the divinities which animate this landscape are perceived at one remove, partially dissolved in an ambient medium of air and water. The metamorphoses of Canto II, for example, reveal "Beasts like shadows in glass", (59) "the coral face under wave-tinge" (II/9), and "glass wave over Tyro" (II/10), while other Cantos conjure with "the faceted air" (XX/92), "The leaves cut on the air" (XXI/99), and "the trees melted in air" (XXIX/146). The effect is somewhat akin to what Michel Foucault terms the "virtual space" of the mirror: "it makes this place that I occupy at the moment when I look at myself in the glass at once absolutely real, connected with the space that surrounds it, and absolutely unreal, since in order to be perceived it has to pass through this virtual point which is over there." (60) Before long, Pound's visionary landscape becomes familiar, with its flashes of colour, "the stair of gray stone/the passage clean-squared in granite" (XVI/69), the "hills under light" (XVII/77), and its hovering, suspended presences. Duncan's sense of a motif of a "return" is everywhere in evidence, as Pound quickly establishes particular rhythms of disclosure. Canto II, in fact, provides many of the key rhythmic signatures which would haunt the work as a whole, with its spondaic compounds ("pad-foot," "lynx-purr," and so on) combining with an incantatory use of the present tense to produce a space in which the mind can free itself from the dense particularity of the historical materials which press upon it. Objects are clearly presented, but in a curious movement of distantiation are somehow withheld, situated "over there," in Foucault's phrase-"Nor bird-cry, nor any noise of waving moving,/Nor splash of porpoise, nor any noise of wave moving" (XVII/76--and in one of Pound's favourite locutions, we have the "Sand as of malachite" (but not of malachite), "the turf clear as on hills under light" (XVII/77) and "Sound: as of the nightingale too far off to be heard" (XX/90). Strong deictic markers--"there," "now"--insist on the presentness of the moment even as the details of the landscape are partially withdrawn--"the light now, not of the sun" (XVII/76), and so on. While the the passage seems to exemplify Pound's ideal of visionary perception and what he calls "the welding of word and thing," it also has something elusive about it, something that escapes the order of clearly determined meaning that Pound has tended to associate with the visual analogy. Clearly realised as this landscape is, it contains something else, something that seems to lie just out of range, something that complicates and perhaps undermines the kind of clarity at which the writing seems to aim.
This "something" might be defined in a word Pound himself uses, "melopoeia." The term is one of three announced in his 1931 pamphlet called How to Read: there we have logopoiea, "the dance of the intellect among words"; phanopoeia, the "casting of images upon the visual imagination," and finally melopoeia, wherein, Pound, says, "the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning." (61) Perhaps more surprisingly in view of his emphasis on verbal precision, Pound goes on to note that melopoeia amounts to "a force tending often to lull, or distract the reader from the exact sense of the language. It is poetry on the borders of music, and music is perhaps the bridge between consciousness and the unthinking sentient or even insentient universe." (62) It was precisely this tendency of melopoeia to produce a sort of deflection of the visual sense which Wyndham Lewis derided as "swinburnian" in Canto XVII. Yet accurate as the description is, it also reminds us that Lewis, a man very much of the eye rather than the ear, was not attuned, as Pound was, to the range of rhythmic and phonetic variations hidden within the voluminous folds of the Swinburnian oeuvre. For along with his often excessive indulgence in alliteration, Swinburne's handling of clauses worked at once to suspend grammatical closure (63) and to create through echo and phrasal parallelism highly charged rhythmic units which, like many of the lines in Pound's early Cantos, combined precision of designation with a kind of countervailing negativity. A couple of examples will have to suffice, but the intimation of Poundian gestures seems clear enough: "Blossom of branches, and on each high hill/ Clear air and wind', and 'Knew the fluttering wind, the fluttered foliage,/Shaken fitfully, full of sound and shadow" (64); and from Atalanta, "Sun, and clear light among green hills, and day/ Late risen and long sought after" (compare Pound's "Light: and the first light, before ever dew was fallen" [III/11]). And again, other lines from Atalanta: "There in cold remote recesses/ That nor alien eyes assail, Feet, nor imminence of wings,/ Nor a wind nor any tune." (65) One could multiply such examples, but they show, I think, that Pound had absorbed from Swinburne a rhythm and clarity of phrasing which he never properly acknowledged in his essay on the poet's work.
Pound was not usually slow to acknowledge his intellectual debts, but what he drew from Swinburne was arguably so deeply interiorised in his sense of the poetic that it resisted easy formulation. And while the commitment to the visual model was clearly linked to the aesthetic and political programmes of the modernist avant-garde, the musical model, with its now outmoded symbolist associations, was harder to promote. Pound, of course, wrote extensively on music and also composed two operas, but the matter of linguistic musicality is of an order less easy to specify. As Susan Stewart reminds us, "lyric is not music--it bears a history of a relation to music--and, as a practice of writing, it has no sound--that is, unless we are listening to a spontaneous composition of lyric, we are always recalling sound with only some regard to an originating auditory experience." (66) Pound remarks rather similarly on "the finer audition which one may have in imagining sound," and quotes Remy de Gourmont's proposal that "one reads with the memory of speech" (67)--formulations which, like the "sound: as of the nightingale too far off to be heard" in Canto XX, work to undermine the kind of presence and immediacy associated with the visual model. For that special kind of "music" heard in the process of silent reading has an instability that only a highly nuanced syntax can grasp--an instability that compounds that of actually heard music, with its uncertain materiality and its complex presentation of the mystery of temporality. (68) Certainly, the tense of musical experience is a rich and elusive one. As the musicologist Victor Zuckerkandl observes, "in the space that we hear there simply is no juxtaposition ... It is not the series of instant after instant which is essential in music, but the fact that the present instant contains the past instant and the future instant: an interpenetration rather than a succession." (69) Might we say that such a complex temporality, with its embedded 'future instant', has the capacity to articulate a utopian sentiment, though one contained within poetic rhythm rather than being articulated at the level of content? Just as we have to go back to Swinburne to understand this aspect of Pound's modernism, so we might recall that this was a period (unlike our own) in which it was not unusual for music to have an important relation to philosophy and utopian thought. (70)
What are we to learn from all this? Some obvious things perhaps: that Pound and Eliot were to some extent creating as they went their own myth of the great modernist breakthrough, and that we must consequently proceed with caution when adjudicating questions of influence and rupture within the historiography of modernism. And, in line with this, the fundamental shifts in aesthetic direction--in this case, from music to painting as the model for a new poetics--these also have to be weighed with some care if we are to see the continuities as well as the discontinuities between the modernists and their nineteenth-century precursors. Swinburne's case may seem pivotal in this respect, allowing us to see how a complex sense of rhythm, tied to a profound knowledge of classical metres, could not so easily be swept aside by the new emphasis on modes of "objectification." If Swinburne was in some sense "blind" to the claims of the objectworld, it was largely because, for him, the very purposes of poetry were so closely tied to forms of anamnesis and desire, and these resources were, in turn, ones which a poet like Pound could hardly do without. Much, we might conclude, turns ultimately upon a definition of rhythm as a necessary form of "blindness." Let me close with LacoueLabarthe's recognition that when thinking of poetry (he has Mallarme in mind), "we see that two criteria are here in play: a visual (or spatial) criterion and a (temporal) acoustic criterion, rhythm as such, being, we must understand, the articulation of both." (71) This conjunction of visual and temporal arguably tells us something not only about the habits of Pound's writing but also about an historical and stylistic transition which is actually more complex than it has often been thought to be.
Peter Nicholls, New York University
(1) An earlier version of this essay appeared in French in Le Rossignol Instrumental: Poesie, Musique, Modernite, trans Christine Pagnoulle (Leuven: Peeters Vrin, 2004), pp. 65-90.
(2) Roman Jakobson, 'Marginal Notes on the Prose of the Poet Pasternak', in Language and Literature, ed. Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1993), pp. 302-303.
(3) Quoted in Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes: The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1993), p. 252.
(4) Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art (1934), ed. Seamus Cooney (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1987), p.97
(5) ibid., p. 97.
(6) Martin Jay, Downcast Eyes:The Denigration of Vision in Twentieth-Century French Thought (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), pp.191-192.
(7) Wyndham Lewis, The Art of Being Ruled (1926), ed. Reed Way Dasenbrock (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1989), p. 104.
(8) Wyndham Lewis, Time and Western Man (1927), ed. Paul Edwards (Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press. 1993), p. 416.
(9) Lewis, Time and Western Man, p. 71.
(10) Mallarme's dedication is quoted in The Swinburne Letters, 6 vols, ed. Cecil Y. Lang (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1959-62), III, 193, nt.1. It is likely that Swinburne was discussed at Mallarme's famous Tuesday gatherings, given the presence there of Gabriel Mourey, translator of Poems and Ballads (see Havelock Ellis, From Rousseau to Proust (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1935), p. 11.
(11) The Swinburne Letters, V, 207.
(12) Swinburne, William Blake: A Critical Essay, quoted in Jerome McGann, Swinburne: An Experiment in Criticism (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1972), p. 56.
(13) McGann, Swinburne, p. 65.
(14) Mallarme, 'Erechtheus: Tragedie par Swinburne', Oeuvres completes, ed. Henri Mondor and G. Jean-Aubry (Paris: Gallimard, 1979), p. 703.
(15) Mallarme, Oeuvres completes, p. 702.
(16) Mallarme, Crayonne au theatre, in Oeuvres completes, p. 328.
(17) Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, Essays and Letters, trans. Bradford Cook (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press, 1956), p. 41.
(18) Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, p. 42.
(19) On this set of distinctions, see Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta (Figures of Wagner), trans. Felicia McCarren (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994), pp. 4184, and Jacques Ranciere, Mallarme: La politique de la sirene (Paris: Hachettte, 1996), pp. 67-78.
(20) See Suzanne Bernard, Mallarme et la Musique (Paris: Nizet, 1959),p. 74.
(21) Ezra Pound, "Swinburne versus his biographers" (1918), in Literary Essays of Ezra Pound, ed. and introd. T. S. Eliot (London: Faber and Faber, 1960), p. 293.
(22) T. S. Eliot, "Swinburne as Poet" (1920), in Eliot, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1972), pp. 325-326.
(23) Pound, "The Renaissance" (1914), Literary Essays, p. 218.
(24) Eliot, "The Music of Poetry" (1942), in Selected Prose, ed., John Hayward (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965), pp. 54-55.
(25) Eliot, "Swinburne as Poet," p. 327.
(26) Ibid., p. 324-325.
(27) Ibid., p. 326.
(28) Jacques Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind: the Self-Portrait and Other Ruins, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 39, nt. 42.
(29) Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, p.40 nt. 42.
(30) Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, p. 36. Cf. Derrida, Speech and Phenomenon and Other Essays on Husserl's Theory of Signs, trans. David B. Allison (Evanston, Il: Northwestern University Press, 1973),p. 62: 'There is a duration to the blink, and it closes the eye.'
(31) Derrida, Memoirs of the Blind, p. 3.
(32) Mallarme, 'Erechtheus,' p. 702.
(33) George Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody, 3 vols (1906; rpt. New York: Russell & Russell, 1961), III, p. 343.
(34) Swinburne, "Nephelidia, in Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works (London: William Heinemann Ltd., "1924), II, p. 836.
(35) Saintsbury, A History of English Prosody, III, p. 335. Cf. Veronica Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice: a Theory of Twentieth-Century Poetry (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1978), p. 117: "How Swinburne achieved a reputation for verbosity when his lines are composed almost entirely of monosyllables would remain mysterious if we were not sufficiently alert to note that the monosyllables 'the,' 'of,' 'and,' are what create his characteristic anapests. Ruth Z. Temple, The Critic's Alchemy: A Study of the Introduction of French Symbolism into England (New York: Twayne, 1953), p. 116 notes that Swinburne's "light, swift anapestic verses" were especially congenial to the French poetic sensibility.
(36) Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, Essays, and Letters, p. 48.
(37) Ibid., p. 42.
(38) "Epicede," in Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, I, p. 368.
(39) Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, p. 62.
(40) Eliot, The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (London: Faber and Faber, 1964), 334. For further discussion of this important passage, see my Modernisms: A Literary Guide (London: Macmillan, 1995), pp. 194-5. See also Cassandra Laity, "HD and A.C. Swinburne: Decadence and Modernist Women's Writing," Feminist Studies, 15. 3 (Fall 1989), pp. 461-84.
(41) Eliot, Selected Prose, pp. 267-8.
(42) Pound, Collected Early Poems, ed. Michael John King (London: Faber and Faber, 1977), p. 41.
(43) Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta, p. 39.
(44) Swinburne, "Whitmania," The Works of A. C. Swinburne, ed. E. Gosse and T. J. Wise, XX vols (London: Heinemann, 1925-7), XV, p. 310.
(45) The last phrase of this sentence is quoted from Yopie Prins, Victorian Sappho (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), p. 173. Forrest-Thomson, Poetic Artifice, 121 compares this aspect of Swinburne's work with the surrealist dream: "Is it necessary to insist on Eliot's 'statements made in dreams' as part of the Surrealist revethat area of reverse priorities where the looking--glass world transforms our ordinary hierarchies of extended meanings?"
(46) Prins, Victorian Sappho, p. 172.
(47) Mallarme: The Poems, trans and introd. Keith Bosley (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1977), p. 45.
(48) Eliot, "Swinburne as Poet," p. 327. Cf. McGann, Swinburne, p. 73: "the uniform tone persuades us that all systems of echo and correspondence are realities which stand beyond personality, immutably and eternally 'real'."
(49) Cf. Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta, p. 22 on "musical reminiscence".
(50) Mallarme: Selected Prose Poems, Essays, and Letters, p. 40.
(51) See Prins, Victorian Sappho for a detailed discussion of Swinburne's metrical "remembering" of the Sapphic fragment.
(52) See my Ezra Pound: Politics, Economics and Writing (London: Macmillan, 1984), pp. 18-19.
(53) Cf. Prins, Victorian Sappho, p. 140 on 'the revelation of Sapphic song ... as a form of material inscription,' 'a conversion of rhythm into meter.'
(54) Robert Duncan, 'The H.D. Book: Chapter 4', Tri-Quarterly, 12 (Spring 1968), p. 82.
(55) Omar Pound and Robert Spoo, eds., Ezra Pound and Margaret Cravens: A Tragic Friendship (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1988),p. 27 (Pound's emphases). See also my 'Pound's Places', in Alex Davies and Lee Jenkins, eds., Locations of Literary Modernism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), pp. 162-65 for a fuller development of this set of ideas.
(56) Pound, Selected Letters, ed. D. D. Paige (London: Faber and Faber, 1971), p.254.
(57) Eliot, 'Swinburne as Poet,' p. 327.
(58) Pound, Literary Essays, p. 154 (my emphases).
(59) Pound, The Cantos (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), p. 8. Further references will be given in the text in the form: II/8.
(60) Michel Foucault, 'Of Other Spaces', Diacritics (Spring, 1986), p. 24.
(61) Pound, How to Read, in Polite Essays (1937; rpt. Plainview, NY: Books for Libraries Press, 1966), p. 170 (my emphases).
(62) Ibid., pp. 171-172.
(63) Noted by McGann, Swinburne,p. 150.
(64) Swinburne, 'Anactoria,' Swinburne's Collected Poetical Works, I, p. 65; 'A Lamentation', ibid, I, p. 98; 'Hendecasyllabics', ibid, I, p. 202.
(65) Swinburne, Atalanta in Calydon: A Tragedy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1899), pp. 36, 57.
(66) Susan Stewart, 'Letter on Sound', in Charles Bernstein, ed., Close Listening: Poetry and the Performed Word (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), p. 29
(67) Quoted in Vincent Sherry, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, and Radical Modernism (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 52.
(68) See Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World, trans. Willard R. Trask, 2 vols (New York: Pantheon Books, 1956), I, p. 145: 'It [music] is distinguished form all psychological phenomena by the way in which it is given, by accuracy, reliability, one might almost say palpability; from all physical phenomena , on the other hand, it is distinguished by the characteristic of impalability.'
(69) Ibid, p. 347.
(70) Edward Said makes this point in relation to Adorno and Bloch in Musical Elaborations (New York: Vintage, 1992), pp. 15-16.
(71) Lacoue-Labarthe, Musica Ficta, p. 81.
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|Publication:||Journal of Philosophy: A Cross Disciplinary Inquiry|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2010|
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