Ernest Fenollosa And The Ideogram

In December 1913, Pound began editing the papers of the renowned American philosopher Ernest Fenollosa, at the invitation of Fenollosa's widow. Fenollosa had lived and worked in Tokyo for many years as a professor of philosophy and political economy, and had become an expert on Japanese and Chinese art and literature. Among his papers was an essay, 'The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry', which Pound edited and published in the American literary journal, The Little Review, in 1919. In his preface to the essay Pound called it a 'study of the fundamentals of all aesthetics' (1936: 7), and the fact that the essay was published in a key modernist periodical underlines Pound's belief that this was no obscure scholarly text, but rather a ground-breaking document of immediate relevance to modern poetry.

Fenollosa argued that Chinese was a naturally poetic language by virtue of the pictographic quality of its ideograms. Unlike English, for example, where the words 'man sees horse' have only an arbitrary relation to the things and process to which they refer, Chinese, Fenollosa writes, actually pictures that which it describes. Describing the Chinese figures below, Fenollosa interprets them as follows:

First stands the man on his two legs, Second, his eye moves through space: a bold figure represented by running legs under an eye, a modified picture of an eye, a modified picture of running legs, but unforgettable once you have seen it, Third stands the horse on his four legs,

Fenollosa was in fact wrong to think that Chinese was predominantly pictographic (the majority of Chinese characters are semantic-phonetic like English words), but his mistake was a productive one for Pound, who only later realized the essay's limitations. The imagist (and symbolist) dream of a poetry that can present reality in all its immediacy appeared to be realized in Chinese.

The aspect of the essay that most interested Pound was Fenollosa's argument that compound words in Chinese picture not only things, but the relationship between things. They therefore reflect the activity of the natural and human worlds: 'the sun underlying the bursting forth of plants = spring [. . .], '"Rice-field" plus "struggle" = male' (1936: 14). As these examples show, meaning is being made through metaphor: the abstract notion of 'spring' is conveyed by a picture of something that occurs during spring. Metaphor was already fundamental to Pound's and Hulme's modernism (the impact of 'In a Station of the Metro', for example, rests on seeing the faces as petals), but Fenollosa's essay suggested that Chinese words were less static than their English equivalents, that they were inherently dynamic.

But what has this to do with history and literary tradition? The last few pages of Fenollosa's essay turn to the subject of the evolution of language. Like the symbolists and the modernists, Fenollosa laments the utilitarian way language is used in modern life, robbed of its colour and suggestiveness - and of its history. For in our language, he says, there is nothing that shows how a word grows and changes, 'it does not bear its metaphor on its face' (1936: 29). But in Chinese, a word's etymology is constantly visible: 'thus a word, instead of growing gradually poorer and poorer as with us, becomes richer and still more rich from age to age, almost consciously luminous' (1936: 29). Pound's university training in philology had taught him that words contain history: tracking their use provides explanations of cultural change. Fenollosa's (mis)understanding of the Chinese ideogram led him to believe it was a type of word that encapsulated history in spatial form (Frank 1991: 5-66). Unsurprisingly, Pound saw a connection between this aspect of Fenollosa's argument and his 'method of Luminous Detail', and by the 1930s he had renamed the latter 'the ideogrammic method' (1991: 18-23, 96). Under this name it became the major structuring principle of The Cantos.

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