T.S. Eliot, T.E. Hulme and Ezra Pound are three of the most significant figures in the early twentieth-century literary phenomenon we have come to call modernism. They revolutionized Anglo-American poetry, arguing that traditional poetic forms and themes could no longer encapsulate the experience of the modern world. They were pioneers in the use of free verse and in their expansion of the subject matter of poetry. During his short career, T.E. Hulme provided the intellectual impetus for Pound's imagist movement, which Eliot called 'the startingpoint of modern poetry' (1978: 58). Eliot's The Waste Land and Pound's The Cantos are renowned as two of the most innovative and influential poems in the English language.
But it is not only their poetic experimentation that makes these poets significant. The thinking of Eliot, Hulme and Pound is largely responsible for shaping the modernism we have inherited. They were the primary theorists of the major issues we traditionally associate with modernism: disinterestedness vs political engagement, elitism vs democracy, tradition vs novelty, abstraction vs realism. Until recently, the canon of early twentieth-century literature was made up of writers they praised. Their fascination with obscure literary traditions and contemporary philosophy even reshaped the pre-twentieth-century literary canon. They established an enormously influential system of literary values, disseminated through their critical essays and their editorial authority. This book will trace the formation of those values.
However, some of the most important recent criticism of early twentieth-century literature rightly argues that our understanding of the period has been restricted by the influence of a small modernist coterie and its associated literary values. It may be that we want to reject the dominance of their literary theories and argue for a more inclusive and various account of early twentieth-century literature, an account that includes, for example, more writing by women, and writing significant for reasons other than verbal experimentation. Nevertheless, a precise understanding of the cultural field constructed by Eliot, Hulme and Pound remains vital if we are to delineate the diversity of intellectual discussion in the period. Far from being exclusively literary in their interests, as they have been accused in the past, these writers were vitally compelled by the pressing intellectual questions of their day, in the fields of philosophy, fine art, economics, politics and education, to name just a few of the subjects of their criticism.
Indeed, it is precisely the variety of their interests that makes them both such important, but also such problematic figures. Their insistent connecting of the literary and political fields, for example, makes us ask fundamental questions about the role of literature in society, and the role of the poet or artist, too. Should the poet comment on political decisions, or even attempt to influence political decisions? All three of these writers answered an emphatic 'yes' to this question: in their view, their roles as specialists in the realm of culture required political statement. This may not seem contentious, but when we find out that Eliot's, Hulme's and Pound's political statements were anti-Semitic, anti-democratic and fascist respectively, our response to their creative writing becomes more difficult to formulate. The cultural and political works of these writers have forced readers to think hard about the extent to which poetry involves politics: can one admire a writer's poetry while deploring their politics? How can one draw a line between the poetic and the political? If we are to even begin to be able to answer those questions, we must look closely at the intellectual trajectories of these writers.
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