Poetry Of Restraint

Around 1917 Eliot and Pound decided that 'the dilutation of vers libre, Amygism, Lee Mastersism, general floppiness had gone too far and that some counter-current must be set going' (Pound 1932: 590). Their reaction against free verse was motivated by a number of factors, the most immediate of which was that Pound disapproved of the direction the imagist anthologies had taken under the editorship of Amy Lowell. But this biographical factor is connected to a more important issue: imagism's very popularity suggested to Eliot and Pound that free verse had for the time being played out its useful role in changing Anglo-American poetry: the opportunities it afforded were great, but its drawbacks were starting to become apparent. Chief among these, according to Eliot and Pound, was its potential lack of rigour. In the short pamphlet Ezra Pound: His Metric and Poetry (1917), Eliot reviewed Pound's career to date, emphasizing the metrical virtuosity of even his free verse poems:

the freedom of Pound's verse is rather a state of tension due to constant opposition between free and strict. There are not, as a matter of fact, two kinds of verse, the strict and the free; there is only a mastery which comes of being so well trained that form is an instinct and can be adapted to the particular purpose in hand.

The reaction against free verse is also the logical result of the political and ethical associations Eliot and Pound were now attaching to their poetry. In Eliot's case, in particular, one can see how inconsistent a poetry of 'general floppiness' would be with the classicist position he was advancing in his criticism. Eliot, Babbitt, Hulme and Maurras all drew direct connections between poetic form and political belief, and the freedom of free verse was all too easily connected with the democratic and revolutionary impulses of romanticism. Pound's less defined politics did not entail such a connection, and indeed his individualist anarchism was historically associated with free verse via the symbolists. However, like Eliot, Pound had always insisted that free verse could be technically proficient. In 'The Serious Artist' his argument that art's value is in its supply of psychological data led him to define good art as 'art that bears true witness, I mean the art that is most precise', because 'if an artist falsifies his report as to the nature of man [. . .], then that artist lies', and lies as seriously, Pound argued, as the doctor who gives misleading information to advance his or her career. 'Good writing is writing that is perfectly controlled, the writer says just what he means' (1960: 43—44, 50). Even though Eliot and Pound represent quite different strains of anti-democracy, therefore, they both relate their beliefs in the political sphere to stylistic precision and restraint in their poetry.

To counter the fashion for free verse, Eliot and Pound prescribed themselves a reading course 'remedy' of Émaux et Camées (Enamels and Cameos) (1852), a collection of poetry by the French pre-symbolist Théophile Gautier (1811-1872), and the Bay Psalm Book (1640) used by the early Puritan settlers in New England. The lesson of both was 'rhyme and regular strophes', and the results were Eliot's quatrain poems in Ara vos Prec (1920; published in the United States as Poems), and Pound's poem sequence, 'Hugh Selwyn Mauberley' (1920) (Pound 1932: 590).

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