Decadent into Modern The Poet in Society

The problem of 'excess' and of its related feminization derived, once more, from the cultivated artifice of the decadent 1890s. An example of modernist poetry's unsettled dialogue with this mode and idiom appeared in Ezra Pound's 'The Garden' from the collection Lustra (1916). The poem enacts the complex reactions of a male observer to the figure of a middle-class, even aristocratic, woman enclosed by the railings of Kensington Gardens, beyond which lurk 'the filthy, sturdy, unkillable infants of the very poor' (Pound, 1952, p. 93). As if to associate the poem with the tones of Decadence, the woman's boredom is described as 'exquisite and excessive'. As she is framed by the railings, so the poem is framed by an epigraph from Albert Samain's 1893 collection of poems Au Jardin de L'Infante. And in invoking this context it replays an archetypal scene in the emergence of modernism. Peter Nicholls traces this to Baudelaire's poem 'To a Red-haired Beggar Girl' ('A Une Mendiante Rousse'), a seemingly innocuous but founding instance of modernism's defensive tactics of irony and distance. Beneath the surface sense of identification between poet and beggar girl as sharing a parallel social fate, Nicholls senses a problematic inequality:

For while the poet claims to abolish the distance between himself and the girl, he actually replaces it with another which is primarily aesthetic. . . . It is as if there are two voices at work in the poem: one which sympathizes with the girl and expresses admiration for her 'natural' charms, and another which simply takes her as an occasion for a poem. This second, more devious voice will force upon the reader the unsentimental and cruelly ironic recognition that in fact she is nothing without the artifice of his poem to commemorate her. They may be poor, but the gap between them is not one which the poet wishes to cross. (Nicholls, 1995, p. 2)

Pound's 'The Garden' is similarly entwined in a duplicitous poetics of voyeurism. Fifty years on, however, Baudelaire's heroic dandyism has undergone some changes. Baudelaire's poem is addressed, even in its title 'A Une Mendiante Rousse' (our italics) to its subject. Pound's poem, written under the stricter ethos of modernist impersonality, is titled by location. In fact, it is the very poetics of impersonality that make it curiously a poem about location: where do we locate the speaking voice, and its sympathies, in the poem? Where is it positioned: within or outside the scene described? The garden itself, and its frustrated occupant, are enclosed by railings. It is tempting to read the situation as dramatizing Anglo-American modernist poetry's own ambiguous reading of tradition — most particularly of the immediate Victorian period and its Decadent close. Thus the garden surrounded by railings is a modernist counterpart to the Tennysonian castle surrounded by a moat; the figure inside a modern sister to the 'high-born maidens' of Tennyson's 'The Lady of Shalott', 'Mariana' and Maud. The poem seems itself to allude to such a lineage, for 'In her is the end of breeding' (Pound, 1952, p. 93): a description which productively oversignifies by presenting the woman ('the end') as both high point and last inheritor — dying piece-meal / of a sort of emotional anaemia'. Pound's irony is directed at the decadent cult of refinement and excess (and to an extent at his earlier self), the woman standing in for the aestheticist withdrawal from modern city life into the 'ivory tower' (the 'Garden') of art.

Thus the poem emerges as a commentary on poetry's autonomy and its relation to the modern world and on Pound's own involvement in these debates. The railings separate while they protect the woman from the ravages of modernity embodied by the 'infants of the very poor'. Despite their condition, these children are the opposite of the puny and enfeebled 'chetif Baudelaire identified with: they are 'sturdy' and 'unkillable' in contrast to their anaemic class superior. 'Unkillable' is characteristic of Pound's introduction of a jarringly non-poetic diction at key moments in his poems. The previous line has broken the pattern of starting each line with a strong stress, and playfully apes a Tennysonian sonorous balladry 'And round about there is a rabble'. The question for Pound, however, was what the contemporary poet's idiom and position should be compared with these earlier examples. Nicholls suggests Baudelaire's beggar girl, though 'sexy' and appealing, prompts the poet to create the ironic distance which is the foundation of this particular aesthetic. In submitting his desire to the discipline of irony, the poet thus achieves a contrasting disembodiment (he is absent from his words and the text says the opposite of what it seems to say). (Nicholls, 1995, p. 3)

Pound's poem seems to represent this situation in reverse. Baudelaire's modernism lies in the construction of ironic distance out of overt desire. It contrasts with the social romanticism of Hugo, and draws upon the poet's vocation as 'outsider' and dandy. Pound may have dabbled with this last but he resisted the role of outsider, even though social attitudes had further marginalized the artist in the wake of the Wilde trial. His mission (like Eliot's) was to reclaim art's social function from the position of distance and superiority which it guaranteed. Such were the tensions of the modernist poetics of impersonality. It is this virtually impossible position that contributes to the speaker's ambivalence in 'The Garden'. The poem evades the question of which side of the fence ('the railing') the poet is on. Nicholls claims that Baudelaire submits his desire to the discipline of irony. In 'The Garden' Pound's irony submits to desire, or a knowingness about the dynamics of desire. The closing lines slowly dissolve the speaker's separateness in the simplicity of spoken syntax:

She would like some one to speak to her, And is almost afraid that I

will commit that indiscretion.

Pound's garden has changed from the protective retreat of tradition to an enclosure emblematic of class stratification, the codes of caste and sexual encounter which the woman (as read by the observing male poet) wants but does not want to transgress. The final line-break is characteristically revealing. Its movement in from the left-hand margin enacts the weakening of detachment under the pressures of (male) desire, formally committing the indiscretion that social formality has rendered taboo. Its opening word 'will' indicates the likelihood that the desiring, indiscreet male poet will transgress social and poetic convention to approach the woman. Of course, by rendering the encounter this way, Pound both reaffirms the stereotype of the 'femme fatale' and conforms to the very decadence the poem means to reject. The woman's supposed 'fear' of indiscretion is a displacement of the impersonal poet's own anxieties: positioned outside the very world he would approach - seduce even - but which regularly rebuffs his advances.

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