Tradition and Modernity

Allen Upward's observation above recalls Thomas Carlyle's essay 'Signs of the Times' which appeared as 'early' as 1829. Nor is this a simple echo. Isobel Armstrong suggests how Carlyle's work diagnoses a new historical situation of increasing alienation that parallels Marx's account of the division of labour under capitalism. Carlyle describes an emerging modern industrial society where a new distribution of wealth was, he said, 'strangely altering the old relations' (Armstrong, 1993, p. 4). For Armstrong this is closely related to Victorian poetry's sense of itself as 'modern' (she cites the resurgence of the term in Arnold's 'modern' element in literature and Meredith's 'modern' love). The result was a self-conscious and historicizing sense by which 'Victorian modernism sees itself as new but it does not, like twentieth-century modernism, conceive itself in terms of a radical break with the past' (Armstrong, 1993, p. 3).

As we have suggested, twentieth-century 'modernism' as a category emerged as a belated description of a sometimes violently heterogeneous and unstable set of initiatives. Any distinction, furthermore, between an earlier and later modernism in the terms Armstrong chooses, proves unconvincing. While there were European modernisms (notably futurism) which did indeed cultivate a radical break with the past, the Anglo-American variety was haunted by its relationship to tradition. Ezra Pound's rallying cry of 'make it new' precisely emphasizes the possibilities for reconstruction and 'translation' rather than the destructive joys of Dada or the Italian futurist Marinetti's glorification of modern technology and war. Pound came to London in 1908, he said, to learn 'how Yeats did it' (Paige, 1971, p. 296) and there joined an Edwardian literary world in many ways living off the fading inheritance of the PreRaphaelites and Rhymers Club of the 1890s. In the words applied to the persona 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' at the point of Pound's departure for Paris in 1920, he was himself in these early years 'out of date': an American specialist in European Romance literatures who stepped out in literary London more as the eccentric bohemian and latter-day troubadour than the radicalizing modernist. He was in his own person, that is to say, a rather awkward translation across cultures whose practice of 'creative translation' and imitation of earlier literatures helped in the event to create a modernist idiom with all the estrangement this implied. The often scandalized response of Pound's contemporaries to his work showed how inflammatory this assault upon ideas of authorship, originality, scholarship and tradition could be. The protests mounted as Pound worked upon forms and figures in an expanded tradition (in 'translations' of the Anglo-Saxon 'Seafarer', of Cavalcanti, Propertius and early Chinese poets). Still 'out of key' he became within a dozen years too up to date for postwar English literary taste.

Criticism has been happy to couple Pound and Eliot together as canonic modernists. Certainly Eliot shared Pound's sense of the modern poet's relation to a revised, living tradition and to the place within it of, for example, Dante, and, among late nineteenth-century French poets, Laforgue, Corbière and Gautier. Beyond this the traditions (in the plural, as we should think of them) which these modernists brought into being ran off in different directions.

This complex relation between Anglo-American modernism and its precursors — as well as its contemporaries — in which different sides wrestled over notions of a received or rebuilt tradition, is suggestive at the same time of a broader, equally complex relationship to modernity. A difference between Pound and Eliot shows itself here too, for whereas the 'out of date' Pound had to make himself new, Eliot, as Pound himself reported on seeing Eliot's poem 'The Love Song ofJ. Alfred Prufrock' in 1914, had seemingly 'modernized himself' at a stroke (Paige, 1971, p. 40). Eliot was 'modernist' earlier and more transparently than others. And behind this there lay Eliot's keener sense of modern poetry's relation to the modern world. The need to innovate and experiment with new forms and techniques was motivated, Eliot concluded in his 1921 essay on 'The Metaphysical Poets', by the evident complexity of the modern world:

We can only say that it appears likely that poets in our civilization, as it exists at present, must be difficult. . . . The poet must become more and more comprehensive, more allusive, more indirect, in order to force, to dislocate if necessary, language into his meaning.

At first sight this would seem to suggest a relation of cause and effect, a synchronic-ity at least, between a complex age and the complex art it requires. However, the modern poets' 'language' and 'meaning' (Pound's as much as Eliot's own) was deployed in a rebarbative relation to modern civilization. Anglo-American modernism came in fact to regard modernity with, at best, suspicion — and at worst with contempt for the cultural decline it had instigated. Its experimentalism was therefore a 'revolutionary' means to a literally 'reactionary' end; a paradoxical project in which the openness to new forms and the openness of a reconfigured tradition were governed by a reaction to social and economic changes it deplored. In Pound's case these tensions broke the surface in manifest gaps across his practice and propaganda; in his fondness, on the one hand, for an archaic idiom and his felt need, on the other, for a contemporary reference and relevance. Without some reconciliation between these impulses the critique of modernity in the name of a preferred minority civilization modelled on the best of the past could not take hold.

This tension showed itself in the attack and clarity of Pound's prose arguments and the intertextual weave of his early poetry, spoken through the 'personae' of, among others, Dante, Bertran de Born, Villon, Yeats, Robert Browning, Swinburne and the Pre-Raphaelites. The most important response to the latter was Ford Madox Ford's famous roll on the floor in side-splitting agony at the tortuous 'errors of contemporary style' in Pound's Canzoni in 1911. This roll, said Pound, saved him 'at least two years' and sent him 'back to my own proper effort, namely, toward using the living tongue' (Pound, 1973, pp. 431, 432). Pound's immersion within poetic history, as this begins to tell us, was more complex than a simple case of what Harold Bloom has called anxiety of influence. He needed to revise and renovate the past rather than overcome it, while weaning himself at the same time from the 'stilted language' of a contemporary 'arthritic milieu' (ibid., p. 431). After Canzoni Pound began to find a solution in the more straightforward translations of Cavalcanti in 1912 and in the significantly titled series 'Contemporania' (in Poetry, April, 1913), a series including his most successful Imagist poem, 'In a Station of the Metro'.

Anglo-American modernism's intended critique of modernity can be contrasted with the more common hostility towards art as an institution in European modernism and the consequent attempt within European avant-garde movements to dissolve the boundaries between art and life. The issues here are complex and diffuse. The examples of Charles Baudelaire — surely the most commonly cited figure in accounts of modernism's originating moment — and of the later French Symbolist poets, Stephane Mallarmé and Paul Valéry, can nevertheless help identify two key strands in the relation between a modernist aesthetic and modern life. T. S. Eliot's reflections on the Symbolist poets, and on Baudelaire and Mallarmé's acknowledged American precursor, Edgar Allan Poe, are also instructive.

Baudelaire's seminal essay 'The Painter of Modern Life' (1859—60) defines a split modernity; one half comprised of 'the transient, the fleeting, the contingent', the other of 'the eternal and the immovable' (Kolocotroni, Goldman and Taxidou, 1998, p. 107). This key description echoes through the Anglo-Modernist attempt to pull the materials of modern life — reverberating with the manifold traces of the past and of other cultures — into some new transcendent order and coherence. Eliot discovered in Baudelaire 'a precedent for the poetical possibilities ... of the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis' (Eliot, 1965, p. 126) and consistently acknowledged his importance, along with the English poets James Thomson and John Davidson, in establishing a contemporary urban idiom. In his 1930 essay on Baudelaire, he detected something else, however; something 'permanent' which made Baudelaire more than 'the voice of his time'; an 'essentially Christian' attitude, said Eliot, which realized 'the real problem of good and evil . . . that what really matters is Sin and Redemption' (Eliot, 1951, pp. 421, 427). In this capacity Baudelaire served less as a precur sor of 'modernist' poetry than as an ideological precedent for Eliot's own emerging project, apparent from The Waste Land onwards, to return the sordid new modern world to the faith it had lost. Thus a 'Christian modernism', if anti-modern ideology and modernist aesthetic could hold together, would evoke a redemptive order (the eternal and immutable) to shore up and reshape the chaotic fragments (the fleeting, the contingent) of modernity.

Clearly Eliot reads his own modern age and compulsions back into Baudelaire. A similar re-reading in Eliot's 'From Poe to Valéry' (1948) acknowledged while it distanced itself from the influence of Poe upon Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Valéry and the doctrine of 'pure poetry'. Both Baudelaire and Mallarmé had avidly consumed the aestheticist doctrine announced in Poe's 'The Poetic Principle'. Here, setting his face against the 'heresy of The Didactic and the rising tide of American materialism, Poe had championed the 'poem per se — this poem which is a poem and nothing more — this poem written solely for the poem's sake' (Poe, 1986, pp. 503, 504). Art would appear here to remove itself from life. However, as developed both in the 'l'art pour l'art' movement in France and in the equivalent Aestheticist movement associated with Walter Pater and the Nineties in England this apparent retreat into the self-sufficient autonomy of art voiced its own protest against the moralizing and utilitarian values of capitalist modernity.

Eliot's 'From Poe to Valéry' will have none of this. He finds in Poe an 'irresponsibility towards the meaning of words' and an arrested, uncoordinated emotional sensibility (Eliot, 1965, pp. 32, 34). He therefore tracks this Symbolist and aestheticist lineage in order to determine its limits. The idea of the 'poète maudit, the poet as outcast of society' which Baudelaire found in Poe 'corresponds to a particular social situation', Eliot concludes, while the doctrine of 'la poésie pure' developed in Mallarmé and Valéry 'has gone as far as it can go' (ibid., pp. 37, 41). As always, the tradition is refashioned for particular ends, belonging more to a present-day project than to a self-evident heritage. If Eliot here closes off one route, however, his earlier essay discerns another: a 'Christian' Baudelaire, who at that essay's close, Eliot can set alongside the doctrine of discipline and original sin in the 'classicist' T. E. Hulme.

Eliot had praised Hulme's 'classical, reactionary and revolutionary' stand against 'suburban democracy' in the Criterion in the mid-twenties (Ackroyd, 1984, p. 143) and at such points the reactionary conservative inflection given to this modernism is most explicit. It was accompanied, however, by a further, and until recently, less recognized gendered aspect. Though tortuously suppressed in Eliot this was openly displayed in Hulme's masculinist cult of violence and to different degrees in Hulme's sometime rivals, Wyndham Lewis — ever the cultural pugilist — and Pound, in his more swaggering and opinionated moods.

Geoff Ward speculates that this peculiarly macho posturing of the 'Men of 1914' had its source in the trial of Oscar Wilde in 1895. Before the trial, he argues, 'the posturings of the Decadents were tolerable eccentricities, fodder for the cartoonists of Punch'. After it, 'the artist was exiled to the social periphery: this was the queer birth of the English avant-garde, the artist as cryptic, deviant, misunderstood, comparable to the criminal and the anarchist' (Ward, 1993, p. 123). The effect, says Ward, was a two-fold anxiety: the first 'that writing poems could be thought effete in a sexual-ized sense; the second . . . the related fear that to write poems is not to be at work, in the usual male provinces' (ibid., p. 122).

Both Eliot and Pound had to negotiate this compound anxiety on their entry into English literary culture. They did so through a selective reading of the poetry of the French and English 1880s and 1890s and by producing themselves as professional poets. Eliot, as we have seen, attempted to reject the aestheticist languor and hermeticism of these immediate precursors while appropriating their sophisticated ironies, urban subject matter and contemporary idiom. The ambience of ennui and neurosis characteristic of the fin de siècle lingered nonetheless in his 'Preludes' and in 'Prufrock'. In Pound the ambivalence was more marked. While socially he played the dandy and bohemian and while his poetry was enough to make Ford Madox Ford choke on its precious locutions, his public career as an American in London was from the start propelled by a pedagogic intent and campaigning drive. His 'The Serious Artist' (1913) opened as a latter-day Defence of Poetry and this was a role Pound never relinquished, as later titles such as 'How To Read', ABC of Reading and Guide to Kulchur testify. Pound always had a syllabus to hand, listing Homer, Catullus, Dante, Cavalcanti and Arnaut Daniel, Villon, Flaubert, Corbière and Théophile Gautier, Fenollosa and the Chinese poets Lui Ch'e and Li Po as a bare minimum. And to these 'how to' letters and handbooks for apprentice poets he was to add primers on economic democracy and Confucian ethics as his sense of 'civilization' broadened and the case for the artist's importance to the public realm appeared more desperate.

Here too, however, Pound's commitment to 'The Didactic' which Poe had opposed, found a further, surprising, echo — in the cultural mission of the Victorian sages: Arnold, Ruskin and Morris. As Mary Ellis Gibson reports, Pound's cultural mission was deeply rooted in nineteenth-century thought and in the Victorian response to industrial capitalism. It was crucial for William Morris and before him Ruskin. Indeed the combination of canonical, pedagogic, and social concerns in Ruskin's later essays prefigures Pound's urgent efforts to propagate a canon. (Gibson, 1995, p. 11)

Thus while it was 'new' and moved 'forward' out of aestheticism, Eliot and Pound's renovative project took them 'backwards' to an anthology of 'pre-texts', among them a Victorian discourse of social concern which reappeared, edited and in 'translation', in the heteroscript of Anglo-American modernism.

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